Saratoga case reveals underground issue of human trafficking in Bay Area

January 26, 2016 — by Fiona Sequeira

Although the city boasts multi-million dollar homes, chic boutiques and one of the lowest crime rates in America, a recent story illustrated that what lies beneath the surface here is not always as it seems.


Tacked onto the locked doors of two once-thriving Saratoga businesses by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, laminated neon signs read in imposing black font: CLOSED. NO TRESPASSING.

Although the city boasts multi-million dollar homes, chic boutiques and one of the lowest crime rates in America, a recent story illustrated that what lies beneath the surface here is not always as it seems.

This past November, the Law Enforcement Investigate Human Trafficking Task Force, comprising the Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's Office and an agent from the FBI, arrested three business owners who managed both TapaOlé Restaurant in Saratoga's Quito Village Shopping Center on Cox Avenue and Utopik Beauty Salon on Saratoga Sunnyvale Road.

The owners were arrested on allegations that they forced six Spanish nationals into indentured servitude at their businesses. According to prosecutor Paola Estanislao, who worked on the case, they were charged with three felony counts of human trafficking and one count of wage theft. Superior Court Judge Shelyna Brown set the bail for each owner at $900,000.

Four years ago, the three owners recruited the workers from Spain and housed them in the cockroach-infested sheds at the back of their San Jose home. The owners promised the workers monthly salaries of $3,000 to $5,000 and a rent-free living situation. According to Estanislao, the owners soon had their workers in “debt bondage,” beginning to demand a $500 per month rent from their workers while simultaneously paying them menial, if any, wages for 60-hour work weeks.

In July, one of the victims reported the situation to law enforcement, prompting the task force's investigation. The victims are now under the care of the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking (SBCEHT), a consortium of nonprofit organizations that offers aftercare services to victims including counseling, housing and legal assistance.


The reality of trafficking in the Bay

Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery, the full scope of which includes commercial sex slavery, forced labor, domestic servitude and consumer choices that impact exploitative child labor practices overseas.

A report by the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery in 2007 outlines why California is a top destination for human traffickers. The state’s major harbors and airports, rising economy and large immigrant population make it especially vulnerable to human trafficking.

According to Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, labor trafficking is one of the most pressing problems facing the Bay Area, and it is often hidden in plain sight. In an interview with The Mercury News, Field said that employers often take advantage of undocumented immigrants and use the threat of deportation to avoid paying them legal wages.

One myth that prevails is that human trafficking consists primarily of commercial sex trafficking. In reality, commercial sex trafficking is more visible and thus easier to report. But labor trafficking is more prevalent, with individual workers hidden in homes and small businesses, as seen in the recent Saratoga case.

According to Brian Wo, co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition (BAATC), a non-profit organization that connects local anti-trafficking groups, there are two primary reasons trafficking is an underground issue.

“Here in America, we like to keep our dirty laundry hidden and not deal with uncomfortable situations of injustice,” Wo said. “[And] although human trafficking has always been going on, the legislation surrounding trafficking is relatively new, so people are still learning about what it is and how to deal with it.”

For example, numerous media reports have indicated that the Super Bowl is one of the biggest human trafficking events in the country. Although there is no data to back up this suspicion, many believe that with such a large influx of people arriving in an area in a short period of time, employees work long hours that they often aren’t compensated for, especially in the hospitality and restaurant industries.

Yet Wo urged people to remember that trafficking is a problem that extends beyond one “spike” event.

“There are a lot of people who associate human trafficking with large sporting events like the Super Bowl,” Wo said. “People need to know that trafficking is a 365-day problem — the people trafficked the weekend of the Super Bowl are trafficked the weekend after and they're being trafficked the weekend before.”


Tackling the problem

Wo broke down the fight against human trafficking into three areas: aftercare, intervention and prevention.

Aftercare entails the support services that survivors of human trafficking need. Organizations around the Bay Area, such as the SBCEHT, provide food, clothing, housing, education, medical treatment, immigration assistance, legal representation and general support and counseling.

In intervention, trained specialists reach out to current victims of human trafficking.

“These people might not be ready to leave their situation, but interventionists can provide a range of services for them and help them know that there’s a way out when they’re ready,” Wo said.

The tricky aspect of intervention is that there are several barriers that prevent victims from seeking assistance. According to the SBCEHT, traffickers often psychologically victimize their workers, making them afraid of the outside world and convincing their victims not to trust anyone but the traffickers. Other barriers that prevent victims from getting help include fear of retaliation from their trafficker, lack of trust of law enforcement, especially from undocumented workers who fear deportation, language barriers for those whose first language is not English, and lack of knowledge about the rights and services available.

Beyond intervention, most anti-trafficking organizations in the Bay Area emphasize prevention. Organizations such as BAATC stress spreading the word through social media campaigns, community fundraisers or educational events such as film screenings.

“The more that you discuss human trafficking with your friends, the more eyes and ears will be open for suspicious situations, improving the local capacity to respond,” Wo said. “The police can’t be everywhere, so the more often people are alert and can spot red flags, the more we can report it.”

SHS Interact Club contributed to the preventative cause by dedicating the month of January to an anti-trafficking campaign. On Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Interact members marked a red X on the back of their hand and posted photos on social media to join the #EndIt movement against human trafficking. They fundraised for businesses that employ trafficking survivors, such as iSanctuary, which provides holistic care for survivors and empowers them through jewelry-making.

Members also watched a 31-minute documentary called “At the End of Slavery” that revealed the truth about trafficking in the Philippines, India, Cambodia and the U.S. On Jan. 17, Interact hosted an Art Gala where all proceeds went directly to the cause.

“Our project has honestly opened my eyes to the horrors of trafficking,” said  senior Felicia Hung, the co-president of Interact. “I have never really thought about [trafficking] before, but now I'll be trying to spread awareness and hopefully help end it myself.”

Ultimately, Wo is hopeful that through efforts such as these, human trafficking will end in the Bay Area, and said that the more people are exposed to its realities, the harder it will be to keep it in the shadows.

“Fighting human trafficking is really about caring for the unseen and speaking up for the weary,” Wo said. “It’s a continued process of education — the first step toward solving any issue is understanding it.”

Victims of human trafficking are urged to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-3737-888). Anyone with information regarding other cases in Santa Clara County can call the task force (408-918-4960).

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