Labor Trafficking in Iowa


Many thanks to Michael Staebell for submitting the following article entitled Labor Trafficking in Iowa. As an expert on labor trafficking, Mr. Staebell has consulted with the Iowa NAHT Board of Directors and subsequently agreed to write this summary of our discussions. He will also be speaking at the October 30th Freedom in Action II, Fighting Human Trafficking in Iowa conference to be held in Ames.

Prior to working for the Dickinson Law Firm in Des Moines, Mr. Staebell worked for 33 years for the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). In that time, he was a Wage and Hour Investigator, an Assistant District Director, and for the final six years of his career, the District Director for WHD’s Des Moines District, which encompasses Iowa and Nebraska. During those 33 years, Mr. Staebell personally did hundreds of investigations, and supervised many more. In conducting and reviewing the investigations, he learned that labor trafficking occurs in Iowa more often than we Iowans would like to admit.

Labor Trafficking in Iowa
by: Michael Staebell, Dickinson Law Firm

michael-staebellLabor trafficking may be defined as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for the purpose of involuntary labor or services by means of force or physical threats, fraud or deception, or other forms of coercion.” Labor trafficking can include forced labor in underground markets and sweatshops, as well as in legitimate businesses. Movement of persons is not required for labor trafficking to exist; it can occur without the victim leaving his or her hometown. If a person is compelled to work by force, fraud, or coercion, the elements of human trafficking are in place.

The elements include any behaviors intended to achieve control over another person, not only by traditional physical coercion but also psychological or legal coercion, fraud, and deceit.

Most Iowans probably don’t realize that labor trafficking exists in our state. Sadly, it does. During my WHD career, I encountered labor trafficking situations in agriculture, restaurant, and domestic employment. WHD classifies workers in these industries as ‘vulnerable workers’ because many are low-paid immigrants (both documented and undocumented), or minors under the age of 18. Vulnerable workers are favorite targets of labor traffickers.

Allow me to share some personal experiences arising out of Wage and Hour investigations that I conducted or supervised:


Migrant farmworkers, documented and undocumented, come to Iowa during the growing and harvesting seasons to work in the seed corn and vegetable growing industries. Immigrant workers are also widespread year-round in Iowa’s large egg producing industry. Several investigations in which I participated disclosed that the employer took possession of the worker’s employment verification and immigration paperwork. The employers typically stated this was for the ‘safekeeping’ of these essential records. In reality, the employers in possession of the paperwork would do this to coerce the workers to work for low pay (or no pay) for long hours under extreme conditions. If the employees complained, the employer would threaten to contact ICE and have the workers deported.

In another case, an Iowa egg producer locked the workers inside the processing plant worksite overnight on numerous occasions. Although food was supplied, the workers slept on stacks of cardboard boxes, and if anyone demanded to leave, they were terminated on the spot. The employer said he did this because ICE agents and vehicles were spotted in the area of the plant, and the employer did not want his undocumented workers apprehended and deported.


Two investigations with similar fact patterns illustrate how unscrupulous restaurant owners engaged in aspects of trafficking. In both cases, the employer held the employees’ immigration paperwork. All kitchen workers were paid salaries of $200 – $300/week, and worked 60 -70 hours per week. Servers received no pay but worked for tips only. WHD investigators, myself included, surveilled the restaurants, and at closing time saw workers filing out of the back door into windowless vans, which drove the workers to an apartment complex where they all lived, with 8 or more workers living in small apartments provided by the employer. Additionally, the employers moved the workers from location to location in different cities to avoid detection by ICE or DOL.

Domestic Employment:

During the time I was the District Director for the Des Moines WHD office, we were contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s office for assistance in handling a labor trafficking case. Husband-and-wife medical doctors from India, living in an affluent West Des Moines neighborhood, brought the 16 year-old daughter of a friend from India to the U.S. to be their nanny. For five years the young woman was confined to the doctors’ home, and never left except in the company of the couple. She was paid no wages, and worked 7 days a week cooking, cleaning and caring for the couple’s children. Eventually the woman escaped and was found wandering the streets by the police. Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney filed labor trafficking and visa fraud charges against the couple.

I believe that my experiences represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to labor trafficking in Iowa. When I relate these stories to the public, one question I always get is, “What can I do about this problem?” That question leads to a major reason why the problem is so difficult to deal with: it is so difficult to know and to prove that labor trafficking is occurring. Even with federal investigations that include surveillance, confidential employee interviews and subpoena power over the employers’ records, these cases often do not go to court. The major reason is that the workers are often illiterate, come from other cultures, and do not understand US law and its protections for trafficked workers, and are afraid to talk to federal investigators, let alone testify in court.

My advice to those who would want to help: if you are fortunate enough to gain the trust of someone who tells you they have been trafficked, contact the local police, the USDOL Wage and Hour Division, or the U.S Attorney’s office.

Here are some photos of Michael Staebell speaking at the April 24, 2017 Human Trafficking Conference in Des Moines. You can hear him again at the October 30, 2017 conference in Ames.