Labor Trafficking: A Booming Industry in the United States

Jun 1, 2019

They were lured from Mexico to the United States with promises of work on a Georgia farm. But they were duped. According to federal prosecutors, the laborers were shipped to a farm in Wisconsin, housed in overcrowded motel rooms, forced to work up to twelve-hour shifts in grueling heat, and denied basic rights such as water and health care. Their captors restricted the workers’ freedom by confiscating their passports, hiding them from the public eye, and threatening harm. The five recruiters were indicted this month on multiple charges, including human trafficking.

Like all human trafficking, labor trafficking involves three key components: traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to trap their victims into lives of forced servitude.  Perhaps because the United States has both federal and state labor protection laws, many Americans believe that labor trafficking is an issue in other countries, but not our own. Human trafficking isa global problem: according to statistics cited by Polaris, a non-profit dedicated to combatting trafficking, around the globe there are an estimated 20.1 million people working in forced labor industries. But labor trafficking is also a rapidly growing illegal industry right here, in the U.S. Over the last twelve years, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by Polaris, has received reports of over 7,800 trafficking incidents in the United States. Further, it is likely this number is a vast underrepresentation of trafficking cases in this country. According to a report by PBS, labor trafficking receives even less media attention than sex trafficking; this lack of awareness can influence labor trafficking reporting, as well as prosecution and prevention efforts.

Labor trafficking occurs in a multitude of U.S. industries. A fact sheet put out by the Human Trafficking Hotline highlights industries in which trafficking cases have been adjudicated. These industries include, but are not limited to: hospitality, domestic work, restaurants and food service, construction, agriculture and animal husbandry, health and beauty services, manufacturing, clubs and bars, sales crews, and begging and peddling enterprises. In some of these industries, labor exploitation frequently intersects with sexual exploitation. For example, in addition to her house and child care duties, a domestic worker may be forced into sex with her “employer.” In cases such as this, sexual obligations would fall under the umbrella of labor trafficking in a court of law.

Globally, many products imported to the United States are produced by victims of trafficking. According to the Global Slavery Index, electronics, clothing, fish, cocoa and timber industries are often built on the backs of people working in forced labor. Exploited labor is such an integral part of domestic and global production that is likely that we all own something tainted by labor trafficking.

Traffickers are experts in spotting people’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them for financial gain. Depending on the context, these vulnerabilities may include: race, poverty, youth, substance dependency, mental illness, physical or intellectual disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, unstable governments and citizenship status. These vulnerabilities, combined with traffickers’ physical and psychological abuse, can be the very factors that make it difficult for trafficking survivors to seek and secure aid. Those Mexican workers in Wisconsin, for example, may not have understood their rights in the U.S. and may have feared deportation if they reported their working conditions. People who are trafficked are often isolated, are made to believe they have no allies, and that their only choice is continuing a life of forced servitude.

We believe a better life is possible for survivors of human trafficking. The civil justice system offers trafficking survivors the opportunity to hold their exploiters and the industries that support them accountable. Civil remedies can help survivors access the resources they need to rebuild their lives. If you would like to learn more, please contact our experienced attorneys for a free consultation.

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