When Esmeraldo Echon immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, his sister Leonida Sackett and brother-in-law William were his sponsors for legal permanent residency. To outsiders, Echon’s arrival to the Sackett household in Rocky Ford—and later, his wife and sons’ arrival—could have looked like a family reunion. But the situation quickly took a drastic turn.

According to court documents, Sackett allegedly insisted Echon owed her for the help she’d provided in bringing him and his family to the United States. Her demand: He and his family would have to work off their debt by providing her and her husband free labor. Otherwise, they would be deported.

Echon arrived to the U.S. in fall 2011. For nearly three years, he and his family allegedly worked for his sister and brother-in-law without pay, performing hard manual labor that included construction on Sackett’s Farm Market, a large concrete fence around the Sacketts’ house, and a warehouse for a friend of the Sacketts—all while depending on the Sacketts for food, which they frequently failed to provide, according to the complaint. In June 2014, Echon’s wife Maribel sought legal aid from Colorado Legal Services (CSL), and the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance helped the family escape Rocky Ford, the state of Colorado, and the Sacketts’ control.

This case, which a federal court decided in the victims’ favor last February but is now under appeal, is an example of labor trafficking, a type of human trafficking that takes a variety of forms but generally exploits people for the work they can provide and uses force, fraud, or coercion to keep individuals in a bondage that often isn’t visible to the naked eye.

Historically, sex and child trafficking have taken center stage in the work against human trafficking, but concern in Colorado about labor trafficking is growing. The Colorado Project 2.0 report released in April by the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) highlights the need to prioritize investigating and prosecuting labor-trafficking crimes in the Centennial State, and the Colorado Human Trafficking Council, a 35-member board that provides legislative recommendations to the state, established a task force in 2018 specifically focused on labor trafficking.

In Colorado, service providers and experts point to agriculture, sheepherding, ranching, construction, and hospitality as high-risk industries for labor trafficking. These industries tend to draw workers from vulnerable populations, and the nature of the work environments—farm work in remote and isolated areas; the high cost of living for construction and hospitality workers in the metro area—can put typically non-vulnerable individuals at risk of exploitation.

However, identifying instances of labor trafficking and successfully prosecuting those cases is complicated. While the number of human-trafficking cases in Colorado has increased since the state changed its human-trafficking statute in 2014—from 38 cases between July 2006 and August 2013 to 129 cases between 2015 and 2017—only five of the filings in the latter time period involved labor trafficking. And according to the Colorado Human Trafficking Council’s 2018 report, the single involuntary servitude filing in 2017 involved allegations of unlawful sexual conduct and likely was a filing error, not a legitimate labor-trafficking case.

It’s impossible to know the exact number of trafficking victims in Colorado—labor or otherwise. The Colorado Human Trafficking Council’s Data and Research Task Force gathers figures from law enforcement agencies, state judicial databases, child welfare departments, and non-governmental service providers, but they can’t add those numbers together to measure prevalence.

“We know that a survivor will be touching different systems,” says Maria Trujillo, program manager for the Colorado Human Trafficking Councils. “You might have someone who is identified by law enforcement and then goes into the child welfare system…That person might be captured in three or four different databases, and because we don’t know if they are or not, we have no way of de-duplicating that.”

Additionally, different agencies tend to identify different populations. For example, in the council’s latest report (released in 2018), 2017 was the fifth year in a row that Colorado law enforcement agencies reported more sex-trafficking than labor-trafficking cases. Additionally, those agencies didn’t report a single labor-trafficking investigation or arrest in 2017. This data contrasts starkly with victim service providers, which the same report found consistently work with more labor-trafficking survivors than sex-trafficking survivors.

“Most law enforcement agencies have teams who are specially trained in vice,” says Janet Drake, deputy attorney general for the criminal justice section of the Attorney General’s office. “They already know how to identify vulnerable populations who are engaged in commercial sex, so encouraging them to reframe those cases and look at people who are engaging in commercial sex acts as victims took a while, but it wasn’t a really heavy lift.”

This disconnect—the apparent invisibility of labor trafficking to law enforcement—could be a prime factor in the lack of prosecutions involving labor trafficking. But it’s not as simple as just that.

“We have to be honest, too, that…many labor-trafficking victims also happen to be immigrants,” says Cate Bowman, human trafficking program coordinator at the Colorado Department of Public Safety. “All of the stakeholders on the council acknowledge we could be doing more to proactively reach this population, but then there are also these countercurrents, where it maybe, for some immigrants, doesn’t feel like a very good time to come out and identify themselves.”

The Echon family came to the United States legally. The paperwork Leonida Sackett completed to bring them here actually held her responsible for providing her brother “any support necessary to maintain him at an income that is at least 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines,” reads the complaint filed on the Echons’ behalf by Colorado Legal Services. But because Esmeraldo Echon didn’t understand his rights, Sackett threatened to have him and his family deported if they didn’t do what she asked—and for almost three years, the threats ruled.

According to Jenifer Rodriguez, managing attorney for the migrant farm worker division at CLS, it wasn’t until community members helped the family that they were able to see a way out. Social service providers relocated the family to a different state, and on October 10, 2014, their attorney at CLS sent a demand letter to the Sacketts requesting payment of wages. Nineteen days later, the Sacketts’ attorney responded that no payment would be made. On December 18, 2014, CLS filed the Echon family’s complaint for a civil case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. It was more than three years before the federal jury returned a verdict, awarding more than $330,000 in damages to the Echon family and finding the Sacketts in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Colorado wage laws.

Prosecuting labor trafficking in a criminal trial—where charges are considered crimes against society and defendants can be given prison time—is harder than pursuing a civil suit like the Echons did. Criminal trials require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and when crimes are committed under the radar, that proof can be hard to find and present convincingly. For a human-trafficking claim to stand, the plaintiff or prosecutor must prove that force, fraud, or coercion was involved (with the exception of child sex-trafficking cases)—but what may strike one person as force may be interpreted differently by another.

Because of this, most sex-trafficking cases draw on other laws to make the suit prosecutable. Anything from assault to solicitation to pimping may be added to the charges. “They’re not usually getting [the traffickers] on human trafficking per se; they’re getting them on all these other offenses related to trafficking for sex,” says Colorado Rep. Meg Froelich (D, Greenwood Village). “There isn’t the equivalent for labor trafficking.”

Over the last five years, in addition to rewriting the human-trafficking statute in 2014 to more clearly define the crime, Colorado has passed more than 10 laws pertaining to human trafficking. However, only two pertained to labor trafficking, and both had to do with identifying and preventing the crime, not strengthening penalties or defining related charges.

Then, on May 16, Gov. Jared Polis signed a third bill into law. HB1267, which was co-sponsored by Froelich, explicitly adds wage theft to Colorado’s theft statute, making wage theft of more than $2,000 a felony.

Passage of this bill could be a major step toward fulfilling LCHT’s recommendation to prioritize investigating and prosecuting labor trafficking, because wage theft is one of the red flags service providers watch for to identify labor trafficking. “I think [in] every single case that we have brought for victims of trafficking, there has been wage theft,” Rodriguez says.

But the complexity of labor trafficking—referred to in LCHT’s report as a “wicked problem” because of how it cuts across so many disciplines, sectors, and geographies—makes clear that no single law will solve the problem. Legislation must be matched with awareness training and on-the-ground action.

“We need to spend a lot more time as a community understanding how labor trafficking happens and then how we respond to that,” says Annie Miller, co-principal investigator for LCHT’s Colorado Project 2.0. “We’ve come really far in training lots of different communities in protection, in prosecution, in prevention about sex trafficking, but we just haven’t come as far in labor trafficking.”