BGSU faculty members lead Labor Trafficking Education and Research InitiativeLara Wilken and Tracy McGinley have joined forces to raise awareness

Years ago, when Lara Wilken was a practicing registered nurse with specialization as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), she noticed a correlation between healthcare and human trafficking. 

Now a Doctor of Nursing Practice with a focus on healthcare and human trafficking, the Bowling Green State University professor notes research has shown that nearly 90 percent of human trafficking victims had contact with a health professional while being trafficked, but none were identified or offered resources. It struck a chord with her.

“The more I started researching and reading about it, the more I realized we are seeing these people and missing them time and time again,” she says.

Wilken has since focused on making sure such cases are missed less.

Human trafficking seems more a hot-button topic now then when she was a SANE nurse, and sex-trafficking, in particular, has grabbed the public’s attention. But Wilken and fellow BGSU professor Tracy McGinley, who heads the criminal justice program at BGSU Firelands, have combined to launch an initiative aimed at raising awareness for another sort of the crime: labor trafficking.

The Bowling Green State University Labor Trafficking Education and Research Initiative is a joint effort between the College of Health and Human Services and BGSU Firelands and was chosen for its rural location and proximity to industries that employ many seasonal workers, a population commonly vulnerable to labor trafficking.

The pair of professors, both of whom are passionate about the issue, are considered experts in the field. Both give presentations alongside survivors to hospital systems, jails, law enforcement agencies, public health departments and community officials. Diverse in experiences, the pairing might seem awkward – a healthcare expert and a criminal justice expert. 

“From her perspective, she’s looking at patient care and that end of things,” McGinley says, “And from my end, I look at a variety of things from within the criminal justice field.”

Labor trafficking, described by Wilken and McGinley as the result of force, fraud or coercion, can be compared to a sort of modern-day slavery. Victims are compelled to work for little-to-no compensation by situations that can include debt bondage, forced labor and involuntary child labor. 

Even upstanding, reputable business owners can be unwitting participants in the ugly business of labor trafficking, McGinley says.

“You might be paying them completely legitimately, and you don’t know that their money is actually going to somebody else,” she says. “That they’re being held against their will, that they’re not allowed to leave their job, that their documentation is being held.”

Harold D’Souza knows all too well about documentation being held.

D’Souza emigrated from India to the United States at the age of 27 with a young family and a vision of “Svarg,” the Hindi version of what, in English, could be described as “heaven.” That was America to him. Paradise.

Though he came to the United States legally, on a work visa, he didn’t fully understand the U.S. legal system. His work visa required a sponsor on American soil, and that “sponsor” turned out to be a labor trafficker. D’Souza and his family, though well-educated and successful in India, worked forced restaurant jobs here, under what they believed was the threat of deportation. It all happened in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“In human trafficking, whether it’s sex trafficking or labor trafficking, the victim is in the control of the trafficker,” says D’Souza, whom Wilken regards as a dear friend. “Like the frog in the well, the water is everything. Happiness, freedom, joy – they are in the clutches of the trafficker for happiness, freedom, joy.”

D’Souza, along with his wife, Dancy, has since become a co-founder of Eyes Open International, a non-profit group dedicated to enlightening communities, survivors, law enforcement, faith leaders, first responders and more on how to identify and interact with those affected by labor trafficking. Eyes Open International and its efforts will soon be featured in a documentary produced by actor Martin Sheen, titled “To Be Free.”

D'Souza fits the bill as what McGinley describes as a “survivor ambassador,” someone who’s been through it and who’s now an advocate for awareness. Both Wilken and McGinley stress how impactful it can be for communities to know that trafficked individuals – and traffickers – can walk among society every day without anybody ever noticing.

“The biggest thing with human trafficking that’s so incredibly important for people to know is that anybody can be a victim of trafficking, and anybody can be a trafficker,” Wilken says.

Children, foster youth, single mothers, the homeless, substance abusers, members of the LBGTQ+ population and migrant foreign workers are segments of generally vulnerable populations that cross-sect with human trafficking, including labor trafficking. 

Wilken and McGinley are both quick to express labor-trafficking clues the general public can look for at places of business, especially ones they visit regularly. 

The convenience-store employee who seems to be working no matter what day, or time of day you go, could be a red flag. The restaurant employee who might come across as nervous or project a feeling of being unsafe. If you patronize a place that seems to have living quarters on the premises -- that could be a signal that you should contact law enforcement.

“Pay attention to what’s happening,” Wilken says about what the general public might do to combat the problem. “They walk among us.”