Many businesses across the state have a “Help Wanted” sign posted in their windows. Industries known for long hours and lower wages, such as hotels and restaurants, have been hard-hit after the pandemic. Simultaneously, as workers return to their offices after months of working from home, domestic needs such as cleaning services and childcare are on the rise. And of course, given North Dakota’s large agricultural industry, there is always a need for help in blue-collar rural jobs. While we often see these gaps in the workforce as a part of a continuous economic flux, it’s the things we don’t see that pose the most risk.
“People think that human trafficking only occurs in places with a lot of people and activities, like large cities. They don’t think it’s something that would happen in North Dakota,” says Rwatie Matsika, the Statewide Labor Trafficking Specialist for the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force (NDHTTF). Since its inception, the NDHTTF has investigated 170 cases of human trafficking, of which 7% were cases of labor trafficking. Labor trafficking includes situations of debt bondage or forced labor. Labor traffickers use violence, threats, lies, and other forms of coercion to force people to work against their will in many industries. “The labor trafficking cases we’ve identified in North Dakota are coming from the hospitality industry, people working in restaurants or hotels.” For Rwatie, who has dedicated his professional career to roles that protect human rights, education is key in identifying cases and preventing future exploitation. “Anyone can be a victim. But if there is community awareness, that gives a person an advantage. They know what to be looking for and if something doesn’t seem right.”
Rwatie’s expertise comes from his educational and professional background. Currently living in Dickinson, he is a Zimbabwean national, who learned of the intricacies of labor trafficking in his role as a diplomat. Many times, the victims of labor trafficking are residents of countries outside of the United States, recruited here under pretenses of opportunity and advancement. He says that anyone living in a vulnerable situation, whether it be poverty, homelessness, someone living without a family or support network, or someone who is the only member of their family who is able to work, is at risk of falling for a labor trafficking scheme. “If someone is poor, they are more willing to take the chance on an opportunity that promises to change their life circumstances. But they don’t see the reality of the situation until they are trapped.”
Indicators of labor trafficking include a person not being able to leave the property where they work.The individual may be forced to hand over all of their identification documents. Many times a person will not be paid adequately for their over-time hours, or will not be paid the adequate minimum wage. A trafficker may withhold portions of the paycheck, or charge “fees” to the victim, using threats or false information. In a recent local case, a worker was forced to pay his “boss” half of his paycheck. The victim returned $2,000 of his own wages, sent the majority of his remaining funds to his family back home, leaving the individual with very little money to survive on. Many individuals do not speak up, because they know they can’t afford legal representation and are often afraid of law enforcement.
Rwatie believes in stepping back to look at the bigger picture. Working with law enforcement and the judicial system to identify victims of trafficking will help apprehend and punish those committing the greater crime of trafficking instead of forcing already-exploited individuals to take the fall with documentation infractions. “The most empowering thing we can do for our families is education.There are many agencies working together, communities are coming together. It takes everyone doing their part to make a difference. We need all hands on deck.”
Rwatie will be presenting on the topic of labor trafficking at the upcoming Bakken Human Trafficking Summit at the Williston ARC on Thursday, June 17. The event is sponsored by 31:8 Project, a nonprofit dedicated to educating North Dakotans about the realities of human trafficking in the state. The summit is open to the public and will feature discussion groups on specialized topics, a town hall panel, and keynotes by several survivors of human trafficking. More information and tickets can be found at www.318project.org.
The Bakken Human Trafficking Summit as well as trainings provided by the NDHTTF are helping communities and individuals identify and heal from trafficking crimes. Rwatie sees the benefits among his clients and colleagues, “People are starting to come out. They are seeing the information we put out and notice that something in their situation is not right. They are becoming braver in telling their story.”