On Jan. 2, 2018, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta released a statement commemorating the beginning of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, recommitting his department’s mission to “ending practices that harm individuals, families, and communities.”
“We must act to end exploitation and abusive labor practices at home and abroad,” the statement said.
Absent from that statement was the fact he had already tried to cut a program by nearly 80 percent inside the Department of Labor dedicated to combating human trafficking, along with child and forced labor, internationally. And two months later, he would return to Congress to advocate for a second budget to cut the program just as deeply.
His proposal came under fire from a congresswoman who noted a chapter from Acosta’s past: As U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida, Acosta granted a sweetheart deal that allowed convicted sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein to plead to one count of prostitution and serve out 13 months of an 18-month sentence prison sentence (in which he was allowed to leave jail to go to the office most days) despite allegations he molested and trafficked countless underage girls.
Epstein was arrested in New York this week under a new set of charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy, bringing Acosta’s actions a decade ago and his record as labor secretary under new scrutiny.
The cut to the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB)’s budget in the 2020 budget —reducing the funding level to $18.5 million, attracted the attention of Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), who asked Acosta about the department’s responsibilities as they related to human trafficking during a hearing about his department’s funding request in April 2019.
“The problem is a large one," Acosta told Clark. "The Department of Labor recently issued a report and it actually detailed 1,700 recommendations that could be looked at around the world to address this.”
“That is excellent,” Clark responded, with a smile. “And I know that there are hundreds of thousands of adults and children who are victims of sex and labor trafficking in the U.S. Glad you are looking at it, glad you’ve detailed a comprehensive strategy.”
Her smile disappeared.
“But you’ve also proposed a budget cut, almost 80 percent, 79 percent to ILAB where this work is done, bringing its budget from $68 million to just $18.5 million,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve come prepared to justify this cut to us, but it doesn’t go unnoticed that this isn’t the first time that you’ve ignored human trafficking.”
“How can we expect you, the Labor Secretary, to fight for American workers if you couldn't even fight for these girls?” she asked, as Acosta initially stared at her blankly.
The International Labor Affairs Bureau’s office of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking has several functions, including producing an annual authoritative, congressionally-mandated report on child labor and human trafficking globally as well as maintaining a list of products and source countries that the office has reason to believe use child and forced labor. It also helps fund programs in countries through civil society organizations and other non-governmental groups to address the root of child labor and trafficking, according to a source with knowledge of the bureau’s operation.
The Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment as to why this program was chosen for cuts, but a 2017 press release announcing the department’s 2018 budget request states the government will save “$68 million by refocusing the Bureau of International Labor Affairs on ensuring that U.S. trade agreements are fair for American workers.”
Asked about the cuts during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Acosta confirmed the funding was removed every because it went to grants “for foreign countries.”
"Those grants have been removed, as have other grants for foreign countries," he said, adding that Congress quickly added them back into teh budget. "This is what happens in Washington, and I fully suspect those grants will remain in this year."
In an interview on Wednesday, Clark said the attempt to defund this program “speaks to the priorities of this administration and specifically Secretary Acosta that they would, in essence, make the bureau inoperable.”
“This is the program within the Department of Labor that really promotes a fair global playing field for workers in the United States and specifically it does it by looking at forced labor for children and human trafficking, all that sexual exploitation that sadly we see too often,” she said.
She added, “What it showed me is that Secretary Acosta has a pattern of not recognizing the priority of these issues. He certainly did that in Florida when he chose the powerful and the wealthy over child victims and a 53-page indictment that had been put together by his office."
Advocates have also decried recent decision by the Department of Labor to stop issuing certain visas to victims of human trafficking or other workplace crimes until the victims consult with another law enforcement agency like the FBI.
Erika Gonzalez, an attorney with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, told The Daily Beast the change means victims will have to jump through “a lot more hoops” to get the relief they need. She compared the policy change to the Epstein plea deal, which Acosta did not clear with the billionaire’s victims before accepting.
“What the Epstein case shows is when these policies around human trafficking are implemented, they’re not necessarily considerate of the impact on the victims themselves,” Gonzalez said. “With the Department of Labor asking the FBI to look into [workplace violations] first, they’re adding another barrier for victims of trafficking to access the services the Department of Labor has.”
Acosta said during the Wednesday press conference that the uproar over the visa issue was the result of a "mischaracterization" of the "reasonable" policy.
"Don’t we want criminal prosecutors to be consulted whenever someone says that they are a victim of trafficking?" he asked. " And that prosecutor will be consulted and if the prosecutor says this is not a case we are going forward with, the division will consider whether to issue that visa on the facts."
Other anti-trafficking organizations went further, saying the Epstein case shattered their trust in Acosta’s ability to protect victims of sex and labor exploitation. ECPAT-USA, an anti-child-trafficking organization, wrote a letter to Trump this week calling for Acosta to be fired.
“How can you in good faith be trusted to carry out labor laws when you can’t even enforce sex trafficking laws among children?” Joe Huang-Racalto, ECPAT’s government relations director, told The Daily Beast.
“With the scourge of labor trafficking in this country, the refusal to address recruiter fees, and companies that aren’t playing by the rules, we should [be able to] depend on the Secretary to enforce them—and we don’t.”