Becoming a Voice

Law student John Rafferty’s mission: help the powerless

Published in 2012 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on May 18, 2012


In 2008, John Rafferty was the legal officer aboard a Navy frigate in Japan. “As we pulled into ports in Southeast Asia, I routinely saw many young girls crowding the piers as ships would come in,” he says. “It wasn’t just Navy ships; it was any ship. And I began asking questions about why there were so many young females regularly available.”

Those questions led him to read “Good News About Injustice“ by Gary Haugen, which chronicles the atrocities of human trafficking. As he closed the book, his life’s mission opened up before him. “I think that being able to pursue one’s passions with one’s whole heart and mind and strength is important,” he says. “And when I see people restrained … this idea of slavery and the idea of capturing others and using them for profit was the antithesis of something so dear to my heart.”

When Rafferty was reassigned to a mine countermeasures squadron on the island state of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, he couldn’t shake “Good News.“ So he went to work. After receiving permission from his on-base JAG, he called the U.S. Embassy and asked what it was doing to help Bahrain improve its fight against trafficking. The answer was: not much, due to time and resource constraints. But he was directed toward the Migrant Workers Protection Society, Bahrain’s largest migrant-worker-focused non-governmental organization.

“I started going to the labor camps, where men from India and Bangladesh and Pakistan were living, where they had been more or less imported to, to work six or seven days a week under the hot Middle Eastern sun,” Rafferty says. “Many times their passports and visas were confiscated at the airport by their employers, and Bahrain unfortunately criminalizes any immigrant employee who leaves their employer. So if any employee complains about not getting paid or that their documents were confiscated, the employer can just simply report them to the police as a dissenter, and they will be thrown in prison and literally forgotten about.”

Frustrated at the living conditions of the camps—“these were places that we wouldn’t even put animals in the U.S.,” he says—and the lack of access that the workers had to the criminal justice system, Rafferty resolved to go to law school. “I had to become a voice,” he says. “So I studied, took the LSAT and sent all my law school applications, from Bahrain.”

On break from school, he’s continued his mission. One summer in Ecuador, he served at a shelter for victims of sex trafficking. “It was heartbreaking to be standing in front of 13- and 14-year-olds knowing that they were previously working as sex slaves in brothels in the streets,” Rafferty says. “But on the other hand, it was really empowering and inspiring to see their desire to make something more positive of their lives.”

He also organized a spring break service trip to provide legal services to farm workers in Central Florida, where he and a group of students, law professors and interpreters met with low-wage workers who had never had access to legal assistance. “The ratio of labor-trafficking victims versus sex-trafficking victims in the world is about 9 to 1,” Rafferty says. “While my heart breaks every day for victims of sex trafficking, the fact that there are nine times more victims of labor trafficking is just heart-wrenching. I’m concerned that it’s less of a concern [to the public] because it’s ‘just’ people harvesting tomatoes or picking apples. But it’s so much more than that. There is so much calculated coercion and fraud. It really keeps me up at night.”

While Rafferty doesn’t have his post-J.D. future entirely figured out yet—he graduated from Villanova in May—he knows where he wants to be. “There are so many nonprofit legal service organizations out there making a drastic difference,” he says. “If you want to do public service work, you can. And I absolutely do.”

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