Trafficked: Harold's Story
Despite a push to prioritize human trafficking in Ohio, labor trafficking continues to get less attention from media and law enforcement than sex trafficking.
Growing up in the state of Karnataka in India, Harold D’Souza’s childhood was simple and humble. As a kid, getting to drink Coke once a year was a big thing.
“We didn't have much money, but we were happy with whatever means we had. My life in India was pretty straightforward,” he said. “It was a dream for every Indian, even today, that going to the United States of America is like going to heaven.”
He remembers watching Clint Eastwood movies and thinking that Indians who were able to move to the U.S. were living like gods. Going there seemed like an impossibility to him since he did not even have a passport when he graduated college.
He got married, had two kids and got a good job as a manager at an electronics company. But in 2002, he met a man in Mumbai who said he was hiring a business development manager for a manufacturing company in Cincinnati, he said. The salary was $75,000 a year, much more than what he was making at the time. D’Souza decided to make the jump.
“I entered the U.S. on an H-1B visa. That's a work visa. I came to the U.S. legally,” he said. “Black and white with the immigration department. It was in black and white.”
But when he and his wife and children arrived in the U.S., it was a different story. He said the man brought them to a one bedroom apartment with no furniture near a restaurant he owned. The job was in fact working at the restaurant. Within weeks he and his wife were working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
His boss took the cash D’Souza had brought with him, did not pay him or his wife their salaries and threatened to get him arrested if he did not continue to work, he said.
“I was manipulated, tricked and trapped. I didn't know anything, where I was entering. By the time I realized it was too late. It was like quicksand. You are already into it, like a spider's cobweb. You are stuck,” he said. “I didn’t know the people. I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know how the law enforcement agencies work here. He told me Americans don’t like brown-skinned people, immigrants, and I believed him.”
After a year, his wife, Dancy D'Souza, confronted the boss for not getting paid. A cook at the restaurant overheard and he helped them file a complaint with the Department of Labor, D’Souza said. There was later an FBI investigation into the case, but the alleged trafficker was never charged.
Pam Matson, a former FBI Special Agent who worked on the investigation, told WYSO that the case had all of the characteristics of human trafficking. When she started working on the case, not many prosecutors and judges understood human trafficking or the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, she said. While the Department of Justice chose not to prosecute the case, she said she believes Harold and Dancy D’Souza to be victims of human trafficking.
Even though D’Souza was able to get out of the exploitative situation, he said dealing with the trauma has been especially difficult as a male survivor. He felt like a failure as a provider and protector of his family. For years he could not talk about it.
“It was very difficult. I was struggling,” he said. “There’s a stigma. It was a shame. I used to always beat up myself, like, how did this happen to me?”
It is not just labor trafficking survivors like D’Souza who struggle to understand how they were victimized. State leaders have put an emphasis on fighting human trafficking in Ohio, but labor trafficking continues to get less attention from media and law enforcement than sex trafficking. Of the 475 trafficking convictions the U.S. Department of Justice secured in fiscal year 2019, only 21 of the cases involved mostly labor trafficking.
“It's really hard work to get the public to look at often Black and brown men and say, they are victims of a really horrific type of exploitation. They are human trafficking victims,” said Grace Tellez, a senior client advocate with Advocating Opportunity, which provides legal services to trafficking survivors. “They are deserving of services and support and understanding and their stories are worth listening to.”
Often people only associate human trafficking with sex trafficking and their image of a victim is a white minor female, she said.
Labor trafficking can happen at low-wage job-sites, like farms or nail salons. But it has also been found at construction sites, at hotels and in the medical field. Informal jobs, including child-care or house-cleaning, can be sites of labor trafficking, as well as criminalized labor, such as transporting drugs.
There is no comprehensive prevalence data on labor trafficking in the U.S. But experts do believe it is much more widespread than the cases that get reported. One study in San Diego, for example, found that 30% of undocumented migrant laborers were victims of labor trafficking.
But even in the field of anti-human trafficking, labor trafficking often feels like an afterthought, Tellez said. Often a majority of the material presented at the conferences she attends are focused on sex trafficking.
This trend goes beyond Tellez’s world. Last year, law enforcement agencies in Ohio only identified three potential victims of labor trafficking, compared to 146 potential victims of sex trafficking, according to a report from the Ohio Attorney General’s office. Despite a push to prioritize human trafficking by state leaders, sex trafficking is the overwhelming focus.
Bridgette Carr, the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, said only focusing on sex trafficking allows the general public to distance themselves from the problem.
“Because they say, I don't buy sex. But, the reality is, you likely buy goods and services created by exploited labor,” she said. “Those headphones you have in your ear may have been created by exploited labor. The dress I'm wearing may have been created by exploited labor. If we have chocolate later today, or have already had some, it might have been created by exploited labor.”
There have been some policy efforts in Ohio to help labor trafficking survivors. Last month Ohio state Senators Teresa Fedor and Stephanie Kunze introduced legislation that would make more labor trafficking victims eligible to have their criminal records expunged.
After D’Souza escaped from his former employer, he started a nonprofit called Eyes Open International. It works to empower survivors and stop foreign nationals from being trafficked to the United States. The state needs to make sure to take advantage of the laws that already exist to help survivors, he said. For example, victims can be protected from deportation while their case is being investigated through a designation called Continued Presence. But in fiscal year 2020, only 173 people in the country got this protection. Victims fear they will not get justice, he said.
“Are we prosecuting any perpetrators? Can we see any headlines? Does it come in the news?," he asked. "If that comes in the news the victims will come out."
Prosecuting labor trafficking perpetrators sends a message to employers across Ohio that there are consequences for exploiting workers, he said.
Today, he takes pride in the accomplishments of his sons. His living room is filled with display cases of their tennis trophies and marathon medals. But while he lights up when he brags about his kids, he is humble when it comes to himself. In a vase on the floor with his sons’ tennis rackets, he pulls out a tube. Inside is a letter from President Barack Obama, from when he was invited to the White House. It’s addressed to the Honorable Harold D’Souza.
“I feel very, I don’t know how to put it, very honored. But I said, I am a survivor,” he said, laughing. “I am a failure, but they call me honorable.”
Despite the lack of attention paid to labor trafficking, he wants people to know that this is a world-wide problem that touches all of our communities and affects vulnerable populations everywhere, including victims living in Ohio.
That was the final story in WYSO’s series Trafficked, about human trafficking in Ohio. Find all four parts of the series here.