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Bondi enlists businesses to help fight sex trafficking in Florida

Attorney General Pam Bondi is turning to Florida businesses to expand her “zero tolerance” campaign to crack down on human trafficking in the state, which has seen an increase of teen runaways, the homeless and immigrants as prime victims.

Bondi met with a handful of business leaders who joined her at a press conference Tuesday to discuss a public-private partnership, with a “tool kit” to help train employees at all levels to recognize signs of  human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a “$32 billion business that exploits women and children,” Bondi said, with 27 million people enslaved worldwide. “Human trafficking consists both of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. And sadly it’s happening right here in our state.”

Florida was ranked third in the number of trafficking calls received on the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in 2011.

Businesses, Bondi said, “are uniquely positioned to help stop human trafficking” with “eyes and ears that they don’t even know they have.”

Representatives of Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber Foundation, the Florida Petroleum Council, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Trucking Association met with Bondi Tuesday.

Noticeably missing was a representative of the agriculture industry but Bondi said she planned to get leaders of that industry involved.

With good reason.

Terry Coonan, executive director of the Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement  of Human Rights, said a study done in 2010 discovered that “human trafficking has permeated a great many of our businesses in agriculture,  in our resorts and in our entertainment industry.”

Immigrants who may have documents stolen or are indebted to a smuggler can become victims of trafficking. Coonan said sex trafficking victims from 90 countries have been found in Florida, but the number of trafficking victims who are homeless or runaways are increasing, Coonan said at Tuesday’s press conference.  

“Teenage runaways are in a relationship with a pimp who they think loves them but who in fact exploits them for several thousand dollars a night and brutalizes them in the process,” Coonan said, noting that homeless men in Palatka have been exploited because “no one would miss them.”

But  Florida legislators have sent a few bills to the governor that address human trafficking this session.

The state now has “among the best state laws anywhere in the country combatting and criminalizing trafficking” that pertain both to criminalizing human trafficking and to help victims, Coonan said.

The Legislature passed a bill (HB 7005) to add regulations to curb massage establishments that could be a front for human trafficking.

Also a bill (HB 1325) that would allow sex trafficking victims “to vacate their convictions so they do not follow them through life” and another (HB 1327) to create an exemption of criminal history for trafficking victims passed this year.

Legislation passed in 2012 increased penalties for human trafficking and created “safe harbors” to help victims. 

Mary Lou Rajchel, president and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, said she would support educating and motivating her industry “to learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking and what they do when they see it.”

Florida’s businesses “now have a crucial role to play in combatting trafficking,” Coonan said. “We don’t see people in chains now but it’s invisible chains.”

Report suspected human trafficking cases to local law enforcement or 1-800-96-ABUSE.