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How Does Labor Trafficking Occur in U.S. Communities and What Becomes of the Victims?

Date Published
August 31, 2016

More than a decade after the passage of the United States’ federal law against human trafficking, we continue to lack systematic information about the characteristics of labor trafficking victimization and how labor trafficking cases are investigated by law enforcement.

Several research questions guided this study:

  • What is the nature of the labor trafficking victimization experience in the U.S.?
  • How are domestic and international labor trafficking syndicates operating in the U.S. organized? Who are the traffickers, and what is their connection to other illicit networks that help facilitate labor trafficking operations?
  • What are the challenges of law enforcement investigating labor trafficking cases identified by victim service providers? Why are so few identified cases investigated and prosecuted?

Study findings address the nature of the labor trafficking vicitmization experience, who are the traffickers and how they operate, and challenges to investigation and prosecution.

All the victims in this study sample were immigrants working in the U.S. The vast majority of the sample (71 percent) entered the U.S. on a temporary visa, most commonly H-2A visas for work in agriculture and H-2B visas for jobs in hospitality, construction and restaurants. Female domestic servitude victims who arrived on diplomatic, business or tourist visas were also identified. Individuals who entered the U.S. without authorization were most commonly trafficked in agriculture and domestic work.

All victims in the sample experienced at least some the following:

  • Elements of force, fraud and coercion necessary to substantiate labor trafficking, including document fraud
  • Withholding documents
  • Extortion
  • Sexual abuse and rape
  • Discrimination
  • Psychological manipulation and coercion
  • Torture
  • Attempted murder
  • Violence and threats against themselves and their family members

The study also found that labor trafficking victims faced high rates of civil labor exploitation, including being paid less than minimum wage or less than promised; wage theft; and illegal deductions. Although legal under some visa programs and labor law, employers/traffickers also controlled housing, food and transportation for a significant proportion of the sample.

Immigration status was a powerful mechanism of control. Employers threatened workers with visas and unauthorized workers with arrest as a means of keeping them in forced labor. Even though 71 percent of the sample arriving in the U.S. for work on a visa, by the time victims escaped and were connected to service providers, 69 percent were unauthorized.

Who are the traffickers and how do they operate? The researchers caution that due to the study design, their ability to gather data about them was limited, and they characterize these findings as an exploratory but incomplete picture of suspected traffickers.

Two-thirds of labor traffickers were male and most were in their thirties or forties. About half were U.S. citizens and half were noncitizens (either holding a nonimmigrant visa or unauthorized), but this varied across industries. In agricultural cases, 82 percent of suspects were U.S. citizens. But in hospitality, restaurant and domestic servitude cases, suspects were much more likely to be noncitizens.

There was also variation in the organizational structures and sophistication of labor trafficking operations across industries. Domestic servitude cases usually involved a single person or small group of people. Cases involving many victims, especially those placed in hospitality and construction, were more commonly involved with sophisticated criminal operations that often involved staffing agency owners who used recruiting agencies in foreign countries to lure victims to the U.S. Farming cases also often involved multiple parties, but they were generally not part of a centralized operation. Instead, they were more likely to take advantage of smuggling operations.

Labor traffickers had few formal connections to other criminal networks, such as drug trafficking, weapons trafficking or money laundering. Some were involved in smuggling, document fraud, and sexual abuse.

By and large, labor trafficking investigations were not prioritized by local or federal law enforcement. Survivors mostly escaped on their own and lived for several months or years before being connected to a specialized service provider. Local and federal law enforcement agencies had difficulty defining labor trafficking and separating it from other forms of labor exploitation and workplace violations.

Local law enforcement was reluctant to pursue immigration relief for various reasons, including anti-immigration sentiment, lack of belief of victim statements, and challenges of working collaboratively with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A lack of awareness and outreach, coupled with the victims’ fear of being unauthorized, inhibited the identification of survivors. However, when law enforcement were involved in cases, they sometimes played a critical role in securing victims and facilitating victim services. This was most common in domestic servitude cases.

A large number of policy and practice recommendations are provided to improve identification and response to labor trafficking and guide future research on labor trafficking victimization. A few highlights include:

  • Close visa loopholes exploited by labor traffickers to import victims (e.g., H2A/B, J G5, A3)
  • Improve regulations for companies’ transparency about their labor supply chain
  • Provide all visa holders with information about their rights and who to call for help if needed, in their native languages, when they enter the U.S.
  • Train local, federal and immigration law enforcement in identifying labor trafficking
  • Increase legal, immigration and other service provision to survivors of labor trafficking

The primary data source was 122 closed victim records from service providers aiding labor trafficking victims in four U.S. locations. These data were supplemented with interviews with 86 labor trafficking victims, service providers, legal advocates, and local and federal law enforcement officials in the four locations. Findings from the study are not nationally representative.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number awarded by NIJ to the Urban Institute. This article is based on the grant report Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States by Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank, Justin Breaux, Isela Bañuelos, Amy Farrell, Rebecca Pfeffer, Katie Bright, Ryan Heitsmith, and Jack McDevitt.

Date Published: August 31, 2016