By Stella Dawson
WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Most victims of sex and labor trafficking in the United States fail to get any back pay, despite a U.S. law requiring courts to order convicted traffickers to pay their lost wages, a new study has found.
Sex trafficking victims are the least likely to win any monetary award, even if prosecutors petition the judge, and are awarded far less money than labor victims, according to the review of cases by the law firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP.
Overall, courts ordered compensation in just 36 percent of trafficking cases, meaning that payment was the exception rather than the rule even though it is mandatory under U.S. law.
Labor victims were awarded $213,939 on average, while sex trafficking victims - who were far more numerous and whose services were far more valuable to traffickers - received $151,076.
“These findings are extremely troubling,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, who co-authored the report.
“Why are our federal courts allowing traffickers to keep their windfall earnings obtained through exploiting trafficking victims? Trafficking victims desperately need these funds to recover from the ordeal of abuse and exploitation.”
Anti-slavery groups estimate there are more than 14,000 trafficking victims in the United States. They are U.S. citizens and foreign nationals working in the sex industry, hotels, agriculture, construction, health care and domestic servitude.
A 2000 U.S. anti-trafficking act requires courts to order convicted human traffickers to pay their victims the gross amount they earned from them, or at the least, the minimum wage plus overtime for their hours of forced servitude.
In a landmark 2007 case, a jury awarded $936,546 to two Indonesian women forced to work as domestic servants in the 5,900-square foot (550-square meter) home of a New York couple, and the husband and wife were given lengthy prison terms.
The appeals court added damages, and after reassessing the hours worked, the trial court finally ordered a $679,866 payment.
FAST MILLION FOR ILLICIT SERVICES?
In sex trafficking cases, the U.S. justice system frequently fails to live up to the requirements in the law, and victims receive less compensation, according to the firm's analysis of all trafficking cases in the period from 2009 to 2012.
While prosecutors requested restitution for the victim in 61 percent of sex trafficking cases, courts ordered payments in fewer than one-third of those cases.
Defense attorneys routinely argue that sex trafficking victims do not deserve restitution because their work is illegal.
The report quoted one attorney as arguing that women were opportunists trying to make a fast million dollars through their illegal activities.
“Women who come here illegally, commit illegal acts in our country, and now they are trying to get paid,” it quoted the unnamed lawyer as saying.
In contrast for labor trafficking, monetary awards were requested 87 percent of the time and ordered 94 percent of the time, the report said.
One reason for the difference appears to be that labor trafficking victims are more likely to have a legal advocate supporting them through the court system and pressing for compensation, while sex trafficking victims have less support, said Vandenberg.
"We knew this was a problem anecdotally, but we had no idea how bad it was and now we have the hard data," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Stella Dawson, Editing by Alisa Tang)