U.S. flag

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

Understanding and Characterizing Labor Trafficking Among U.S. Citizen Victims

Date Published
April 25, 2022

It has been difficult, historically, to estimate the incidence of labor trafficking of U.S. citizens, most likely due to its covert and criminal nature. Approximately 10,583 human trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2020 alone; however, this number includes sex trafficking (7,648), labor trafficking (1,052), and unspecified types of trafficking cases (1,519).[1] Labor trafficking in the U.S. tends to be concentrated around certain trades, specifically occupations that are especially risky or require a tremendous amount of physical effort. In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defined labor trafficking as: "The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”[2]

Research on U.S. citizen victims of labor trafficking has been scarce. Although studies have mainly focused on undocumented immigrant labor trafficking, the labor trafficking of U.S. citizens certainly occurs, and certain groups are thought to be at higher risk. People of lower socio-economic backgrounds and levels of education, those with cognitive disabilities, youths who have run away, and those who suffer from drug addiction and homelessness are believed to be particularly vulnerable to this type of exploitation.

Campaigns to curb human trafficking, whether labor or sex, cannot be successful without fully understanding the totality of the issue.[3].To that end, NIJ-supported researchers set out to:

  • Understand how U.S. citizens experience labor trafficking victimization.
  • Discover where labor trafficking experiences fall in a continuum of labor exploitation for U.S. citizens.
  • Examine the personal and structural vulnerabilities that put U.S. citizens at risk for labor trafficking.
  • Explore how U.S. citizen labor trafficking victims seek help or exit exploitative labor situations.

Surveys and Interviews Yield Patterns

The researchers surveyed 240 respondents, from three disparate geographic locations, using a snowball sampling strategy (which relies on research participants recruiting other research participants).[4] It is important to note that the surveys were not meant to be used to assess prevalence rates of the trafficking of U.S. citizens, but rather to better understand and characterize the labor trafficking of U.S. citizens.

For a more in-depth investigation, one-on-one interviews were conducted with a small subsample of the survey respondents who had indicated they experienced moderate to severe abuses at work. These qualitative interviews helped provide additional context to U.S. citizens’ experiences of workplace abuse, and detailed how employers were able to take advantage of their U.S. citizen employees’ vulnerabilities and prey upon their workers’ unfortunate circumstances. Respondents recounted perilous working conditions in Alaska’s fishing industry, forced pay deductions or bounced paychecks, lies and deceptions by employers, and a multitude of restrictions of their personal freedom.

Survey respondents reported experiencing:

  • An average of 14 different forms of labor exploitation and abuse, out of 55 possible forms included in the survey.
  • Deceptions and lies and exploitative labor practices (83%).
  • At least one incident of intimidation, threat, or fear at workplace (60%).
  • At least one incident of restriction of physical and communicative freedom at work (59%).
  • At least one incident of abuse of a sexual nature (33%).

As for the life circumstances, researchers found some significant associations between types of victimization and age and sex. Race and ethnicity were less clearly associated with abusive employment practices among U.S. citizens. The researchers found that respondents working in construction were more likely to encounter abuses, and respondents in the food service and janitorial sectors followed closely behind.

As risk factors for experiencing trafficking among U.S. citizens, the researchers paid particular attention to the physical and mental health conditions and living conditions. They found that respondents who had experienced violence at home reported more incidents of restrictions of physical and communicative freedom at work. Interestingly, those who had been previously arrested, served time in prison, or been placed in foster care reported fewer incidents of sexual victimization. Respondents who were diagnosed with ADHD were more likely to report experiencing restrictions on their personal freedom, and having bipolar disorder had a statistically significant association with experiencing a greater number of intimidations.

Finally, the research examined potential barriers to leaving abusive jobs. They found that:

  • For survey respondents who experienced victimization, the majority (69%) never sought help.
  • Of the 240 respondents, 58 of them claimed fearing they would be physically harmed by their employer if they were to quit, and even more victims reported non-physical threats (including being blacklisted, ridiculed, shamed, harassed, or losing payment owed to them).
  • Although most interviewees did not seek formal help and reported many barriers to leaving abusive jobs, some interviewees did share their experiences with other employees or managers and supervisors.

Recommendations to Address Labor Trafficking

Based upon the survey results and the personal interviews with victims, the researchers proposed a number of recommendations to address the problem of labor trafficking of U.S. citizens.

Researchers advocated for:

  • Increasing education and reporting options for workers.
  • Improving service providers’ and law enforcement agencies’ competencies at recognizing labor trafficking.
  • Increasing trust in the U.S. legal system.
  • Regulating and enforcing existing labor protection laws.
  • Increase awareness of labor trafficking in the U.S.
  • Conduct a needs assessment for U.S. labor trafficking victims, addressing victims’ underlying needs and vulnerabilities.

Future research should pay special attention to characteristics and life circumstances when looking at the experiences of both U.S. citizen and foreign national labor trafficking victims, the authors advise.

Since this study forms the basis of foundational research on this topic, the researchers used a wide range of measures to capture the variety of abusive employment practices experienced by U.S. citizens. Although some reported experiences are relatively easy to classify as labor trafficking, others appear to be exploitative work that, when experienced alone, might not be categorized as labor trafficking. The flexibility of the survey employed by the researchers allowed them to explore the intricacies of the respondents’ experiences and the interplay between different experiences. Future research that explores a more categorical approach to ascertain which specific items individually or collectively define labor trafficking could be warranted.

About his Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2017-VT-BX-0002, awarded to Research Foundation of the City University of New York.

This article is based on the grantee report “An Exploratory Study of Labor Trafficking Among U.S. Citizen Victims” (PDF, 96 pages). Meredith Dank, Ph.D., Amy Farrell, Ph.D., Sheldon Zhang, Ph.D., Andrea Hughes, LMSW, Stephen Abeyta, Irina Fanarraga, Cameron P. Burke, Veyli Ortiz Solis.

Date Published: April 25, 2022