An Overview of Labor Trafficking

By Nicole Caldwell, Undergraduate Student: B.A. in French with a minor in Political Science, University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL); Gateway Human Trafficking Intern

Did you know that one of the first recognized cases of human trafficking in the United States involved labor trafficking? In the 1960s, the Kozminski dairy farm in Michigan hired two men with intellectual disabilities. The men worked as much as 17 hours a day for more than 10 years without receiving any payment for their labor. According to local law enforcement, their living quarters were “filthy, having no running water, a broken refrigerator and maggot-infested food.” The case even reached the Supreme Court which decided that psychological coercion was not sufficient to justify an “involuntary servitude” charge (1). This decision inspired the creation of the “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” (TVPA) in 2000 which expanded the definition of involuntary servitude to include psychological coercion, ultimately helping more victims.

Labor trafficking is often an overlooked form of Modern-Day Slavery despite the overwhelming number of victims around the world including the United States. In 2016, there were approximately 16 million victims of labor trafficking in the world (2). 18% of victims were children.

The TVPA defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” (3) Most victims worked in the domestic labor, construction, manufacturing, or agricultural/fishing industries (4). Male victims are disproportionately found in industries with harsh conditions that require physically demanding labor while female victims are typically found in caretaking or manufacturing roles.

It is difficult to spot Labor trafficking as it often begins with a legitimate job offer. Victims might be offered real employment but soon discover that the job is not what they had agreed to or expected (5). Victims typically are not fairly compensated for their work. They might have their wages withheld or could be paid less than they were offered; even some might receive no wage. Another common way people become victims of labor trafficking is through debt bondage which includes a form of coercion where victims are forced to provide labor in order to pay back a loan or other debts they might owe to someone. It is important to note that 50% of all labor trafficking victims reported debt bondage as a tactic used by their trafficker(s) (6).

Debt bondage might be the most common tactic used to lure individuals into labor trafficking, however, there are a variety of other tactics that victims experience. Some tactics include threatening to withhold wages (24% of victims), threats of physical violence (17% of victims), acts of physical violence used (16% of victims) and threats of harming friends or relatives (12% of victims) (7). Many victims have reported that traffickers steal their government issued I.D.s or identification papers to prevent them from finding employment elsewhere. This tactic is mostly and commonly used on female victims of labor trafficking. Male victims typically face threats of violence against their family.

Migrants and impoverished individuals are at a higher risk of becoming a labor trafficking victim. Migrants travelling to a new home might need assistance travelling or finding employment. Labor traffickers often pose as “recruitment agents” that require fees to find migrant jobs or transport them to different locations. These traffickers usually force migrants into debt bondage by forcing them to work in order to pay back fees. Migrants might also be desperate for work and might be manipulated into working in illegal and inhumane conditions. Immigrants that are eligible to work outside of their home country through a visa program are also targets for traffickers. Most visas are linked to one employer. If this employer turns out to be exploitative, the victim might be forced to stay to avoid deportation (8).

Similarly, impoverished people might be in dire need of work to provide for their families and will accept offers from traffickers that will inevitably exploit them. A common occurrence of this format is in the Thai and Indonesian fishing industry. 100% of labor trafficking victims in the Indonesia fishing industry were considered to be poor or very poor (9). Many victims agreed to work on fishing vessels or in processing facilities, yet they did not realize they would face abuse and/or withheld wages. In one shocking case 1,324 fisherman were abandoned and isolated on an island. Several of them were found locked in cages. These men suffered from severe malnutrition, upper respiratory infections, and mental trauma (10).

Additionally, labor trafficking can be found in the supply chain of consumer products and foodstuffs, especially in the fishing and agricultural sector (11). Shrimp sold in stores like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and Petco along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden have been linked to “shrimp sheds” in Thailand (12). Men, women, and children peel shrimp in grueling conditions for less than $4 a day. In the largest shrimp processing region, Samut Sakhon, approximately 10,000 children work peeling shrimp. Many face disturbing physical and psychological abuse. Some children were even beaten with stingray tails. Labor trafficking also occurs in the United States, particularly in California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New York (13).

Labor trafficking victims might not self-identify as victims. They might assume that they just have an undesirable job without realizing they are being trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation. Additionally, victims might be afraid to seek help in fear of deportation, harm to their family, or unemployment. Here are some warning signs that someone could be a victim of labor trafficking: the victim feels forced to stay with an employer and fails to receive wages, the victim is forced to give up personal documents like passports or ID, the victim feels afraid their employer might harm them, and the victim works in an environment with harsh conditions.

It is important to recognize the pervasive issue of labor trafficking that exists in the supply chain of many products including the clothes we wear, food we eat, and electronics we enjoy. Millions of people worldwide, including the United States, are working against their will. It is our mission to help educate the community in the hope that one day, Modern-Day Slavery can be eradicated.

You want to help fight against labor trafficking? Then, be mindful consumers.


(1) On This Day in History: United States vs. Kozminski” by Taylor King, https://www.traffickingmatters.com/on-this-day-in-history-united-states-v-kozminski/

(2) “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization, p.9 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pd

(3) https://www.acf.hhs.gov/otip/fact-sheet/resource/fshumantrafficking#:~:text=Labor%20trafficking%3A%20the%20recruitment%2C%20harboring,%2C%20debt%20bondage%2C%20or%20slavery.

(4) “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization, p.10

(5) “Human Trafficking on Temporary Visas” by Polaris, p.12

(6) “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization, p.5

(7) “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization, p.32

(8) “Human Trafficking on Temporary Visas” by Polaris, p.17

(9) Report on Human Trafficking, Forced Labour and Fisheries Crime in the Indonesian Fishing Industry, p.68 graph

(10) Report on Human Trafficking, Forced Labour and Fisheries Crime in the Indonesian Fishing Industry, p.121

(11) For further reading on the agricultural sector: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/04/21/nobodies

(12) “Global Supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves” by Margie Mason, https://apnews.com/article/8f64fb25931242a985bc30e3f5a9a0b2

(13) “Labor Trafficking in the US: What the Data is Telling Us” by CCLOU, p.31

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