U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Labor Trafficking in San Diego County: Looking for a Hidden Population

Date Published
August 31, 2016

Human trafficking has become big business, estimated to generate billions of dollars each year by entrapping and exploiting millions of people. But there information and hard numbers about trafficking are limited, so questions remain: How many people are victims of trafficking? Who are they? Under what circumstances does trafficking occur?

Fully answering these questions is difficult, because victims of human traffickers are often unable or unwilling to come forward. But law enforcement and other officials cannot solve the problem until it is better understood. NIJ funded a study by researchers at San Diego State University to improve understanding about the nature and prevalence of labor trafficking in the United States.

Workers in the San Diego County area experienced most trafficking violations and abuses during their employment, rather than during their travel to the United States. Only 6 percent of those who traveled with the help of a smuggler, or “coyote,” experienced smuggler-specific trafficking violations, though approximately 20 percent of the sample did experience abuse at the hands of smugglers.

Many more migrants — 28 percent — experienced labor trafficking at the hands of employers. Of that group, 15 percent reported that their physical integrity had been threatened, and 22 percent reported physical restriction or deprivation at the workplace. Approximately 49 percent of the unauthorized immigrant workforce experienced abusive labor practices at the hands of employers.

The report found that some sectors in which unauthorized migrant laborers are usually employed have higher rates of victimization than others. Agriculture had the lowest rate of victimization among all businesses. The construction, janitorial/cleaning and landscaping sectors had the highest rates of reported trafficking violations and labor abuses.

The types of violations that unauthorized workers experienced also varied by occupation. For example, 20 percent of food processing workers reported threats to their physical integrity, compared with 6 percent of those in manufacturing. Construction workers and those in janitorial/cleaning jobs reported higher levels of restriction and deprivation (27 percent in each group) than did those in agricultural work (12 percent).

Workers who had minimal English language skills were the most likely to be victimized by employers.

There is still much to be learned about labor trafficking in the U.S., but the study suggests the following steps should be taken:

  • Direct resources to counter labor trafficking.
  • Investigate and prosecute violators.
  • Develop a bridge between law enforcement and advocacy groups to build trust with migrant laborer communities, particularly those that may be fearful of law enforcement due to their immigration or visa status.
  • Create a public awareness campaign that publicizes prosecutions and provides information on social services available to labor trafficking survivors.

This study has numerous implications for the study of labor trafficking, including the validation of a method to study this hidden population, and provides a better understanding of labor trafficking dynamics and experience that is useful for both researchers and practitioners from criminal justice, the U.S. Department of Labor, immigration enforcement and service providers.

The study surveyed unauthorized, Spanish-speaking migrant laborers in San Diego County. The average age of the workers was 33 years, and 85 percent of those surveyed had less than a junior high school education. Nearly all (98 percent) were Mexican. Fewer than 30 percent were proficient in English.

The participants were identified through social networks and with the help of an advocacy group that works closely with immigrants in the area. The workers answered a questionnaire about their experiences traveling to the U.S. and during their employment here.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2009-IJ-CX-0011 awarded by NIJ to the San Diego University Research Foundation. This article is based on the grant report Looking for a Hidden Population: Trafficking of Migrant Laborers in San Diego County by Sheldon X. Zhang.

Download an NIJ summary of the study: In Short: Thirty Percent of Migrant Laborers in San Diego Experience Trafficking Violations (pdf, 4 pages).

Date Published: August 31, 2016