OAKLAND, Calif. - With an eye toward strengthening state laws against human trafficking, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have identified nearly five dozen cases of forced labor in the state since the late 1990s.
Most of the incidents involved Asian immigrants and were centered in the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions, which are major points of entry for immigration from Asia, according to a study by the university's Human Rights Center.
The report is a follow-up to a national study released in September by the center and the Washington-based organization Free the Slaves. It estimated that at any given time, as many as 10,000 immigrants and citizens in 90 cities are being forced to work for little or no pay.
In California, there have been a handful of high-profile prosecutions in recent years involving compulsory labor and sexually related abuse.
One such case involved Lakireddy Bali Reddy, who was sentenced to more than eight years in 2001 for trafficking in young girls from India, abusing them and forcing them to work in his Berkeley restaurant and other businesses. Members of his family were also prosecuted.
Trafficking, or the coerced movement of people across borders to work, is distinguishable from smuggling, which involves the consent of the migrant.
The study also zeroed in on three other accounts of forced labor, including that of Victoria Island Farms, a San Joaquin County asparagus grower that agreed in 2001 to pay nearly $543,000 in back wages to as many as 400 workers.
But the center's review of news media accounts and government documents, as well as interviews with community groups, found more than 50 other incidents in the state between 1998 and 2003.
The greatest number of victims were forced to work in prostitution, according to the report. Others labored in garment sweatshops or as house cleaners.
The bulk of the abuses occurred in and around Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a handful in San Jose. Of the 554 victims, 136 were immigrants from Thailand and 104 from Mexico. People from China, Cambodia, India, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines and eight other nations also were involved. A few victims were U.S. citizens.
Laurel Fletcher, a law professor and director of the globalization project at the Human Rights Center, said there are reasons to believe that human trafficking and forced labor continue in the state.
"We believe it is an underreported crime," she said. "Most of the cases that are prosecuted or are reported have been discovered really by accident."
Ivy Lee, a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco who works with trafficking victims, said her group's caseload has doubled each year since 1999. It is now managing four dozen cases, with 20 more under investigation.
"When there is a bust, when there is some kind of discovery of a trafficking scheme," Lee added, "that's typically the tip of the iceberg."
Most prosecutions for human trafficking and forced labor have been conducted by the U.S. government. Federal authorities have established interagency task forces in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles to combat such crimes.
The Los Angeles unit, for example, recently indicted an Irvine couple on charges of forcing a 12-year-old Egyptian girl to work in their home for two years. The couple denied the charges.
A 2000 federal law strengthened prohibitions and penalties, and provided benefits for victims. It also aimed to provide training to local and state law enforcers to identify cases of forced labor.