Labor Trafficking Restitution

Labor Trafficking Restitution

Several young women in New Jersey are finally getting what they deserve this week almost $4 million. That's because a New Jersey court ordered convicted trafficker Lassissi Afolabi to pay back the women he forced to work in hair salons twice the money he owed them. In addition to the cash, Afolabi was sentenced to over 20 years in prison for trafficking and sexual abusing multiple young women.

The Afolabi case would make a perfect law school case study on human trafficking, since it's chock full of all the classic elements. Afolabi, himself an immigrant from Togo, learned how to manipulate the U.S. visa system to bring young women into the U.S. as temporary workers. Most of the women were from Ghana and Togo. He offered them jobs working in hair salons in the U.S., telling them they could make good money braiding hair. When they arrived in America, however, he took their passports and visas. Afolabi forced them to work long hours braiding hair, confiscating all their tips and refusing to pay them their wages. He forbade them from trying to learn English or from making American friends, and would beat them if they disobeyed. He even performed a voodoo ritual, claiming that the women's souls would be harmed if they tried to escape slavery. Several of the women were also sexually abused.

This case contains many of the "classic" elements of human trafficking. Afolabi manipulated and cheated the temporary worker program. He confiscated the victims' legal documents. He isolated them from possible sources of help and used cultural traditions to frighten and oppress them. And even though the women were forced into a non-sexual industry, many were sexually abused. It's as if Afolabi read a textbook description of human trafficking and said, "Hey, that sounds like a good idea."

And what was Afolabi's defense for these crimes? As he put it in court, "I would like the judge to know the actions I committed were done out of ignorance."

Really, Afolabi? The old, "Whoops, I accidentally devised a complex system of fraud and coercion to enslave several women" defense? His wife, who was also convicted at an earlier trial, tried to claim the women were part of a traditional West African apprenticeship program that Americans just didn't understand. I'm sorry, but none of those women would have signed up for an apprenticeship program where they were forced to work without pay and sexually assaulted on the job. Slavery is wrong in all cultures, and to claim that this level of abuse is somehow normal for West Africans is insulting.

Hopefully, the massive amount of money owed to his victims and the jail time will make an example out of Afolabi. Human traffickers beware: what may seem like a good investment now will end up costing you twice what you've made, plus 20 years of your life behind bars.



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