What is Labor Trafficking? – Part one

According to the World Economic Forum, 114 million people lost their jobs in 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdowns resulting in approximately $3.7 trillion in lost in labor income (Richter, 2021). An August 2020 article stated that the global pandemic was “expected to drive at least 70 million people into extreme poverty…desperate workers will be more likely to accept risky job offers or high-interest loans to survive….” And companies will be “willing to hire the cheapest labor available” (Bigio & Welch, 2020).

As poverty increases, so too do oppression, human rights violations, and domestic violence. Conversely, pull factors for individuals include job opportunities, civil rights, and the idea of a new life free of violence. Meanwhile, traffickers and other criminal organizations gained confidence and stability as the rest of the world shut down. As a result of lost wages, lost job security, and loss of economic opportunities, individuals are at heightened risk for exploitation and trafficking. All of these push factors mentioned above are some reasons for a person to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Individuals who are experiencing extreme poverty, danger, abuse, high rates of illiteracy, little social mobility, or lack of job opportunities at home may see the opportunities for a better life in the United States and desire to move. Others may be recruited by friends or family members who believe there is a positive opportunity in the United States. Still others may be recruited by traffickers or 3rd or 4th party groups. This desire to make a better life for themselves and their family, makes an individual vulnerable to recruiters and traffickers. Many times, the individual finds themselves in a position where they need to provide a fee to the recruiter or trafficker, which may be paid up front (the family home may be put up as collateral for high interest loans, they may sell family property, or they may borrow money, etc.) or they may be “given the opportunity” to pay the fee over time or after arrival in the

U. S.

Workers who desire to leave their home country to come to the United States most often obtain temporary worker visas, typically H-2A or H-2B visas. The H-2A visa is for temporary agricultural workers. The H-2B visa is for those who work in hospitality, construction, and restaurants. Other workers who often arrive in the U. S. and are vulnerable to exploitation and/or trafficking may come on diplomatic, business, or tourist visas and work as domestic help (childcare, eldercare, cleaning, etc.). Most come from Central America or Asia (Evans, et al., 2014).

The recruiter or trafficker will take the individual to the U. S. Consulate or Embassy in order to receive their work visa. During this interview, the individual is often at the mercy of the recruiter or trafficker for interview preparation, translation, or “support”. Rarely do the embassy or consulate officials distribute information regarding workers’ rights and the protections available to workers regardless of their citizenship, or screen for human trafficking indicators (Evans, et al., 2014).

In the meantime, traffickers engage force, fraud, or coercion to convince victims to involve in human trafficking. Generally, there is little force used (which is not to say there is none). However, the fraud and/or coercion -also known as psychological manipulation- often begins at the point of the first contact. The recruits may be defrauded by the recruiter, trafficker, or even their own family members. It often consists of false promises surrounding compensation, living conditions, and job duties. The fraud may include promises of legal permanent residency. It is not unusual for the recruit to experience highly coercive tactics such as high-pressure sales tactics, little time to read or decide to sign a contract (with a recruitment/employment agency) sometimes not written in their own language, and threats of losing the job opportunity to another person. Additionally, the recruitment fees may be from less than $1000 to more than $15,000. Some U. S. companies may be directly involved in the fraud and coercive recruitment and some have others who recruit for them then turn a blind eye to the methods used.

These realities of labor trafficking in the U.S. are little known to so many people. Based on a study conducted by the Urban Institute, our community has been so much concerned or misguided about unauthorized immigrants that there has been little support for labor trafficking victims; the majority of whom are recognized as recent immigrants and relocated refugees with various temporary or permanent legal documentations.

A victim service provider in the Urban Institute study further described this challenge regarding labor trafficking as:

There are very few law enforcement officers in the criminal justice system who are trained to identify [labor trafficking] … .It is so masked by what is seemingly legal, like legal work scenarios, and oftentimes they are intermixed, whether in the sexualized labor industry or in any other formal or informal industry. (site 1, service provider attorney 1).

One federal agent in the same study described the challenge of training other agents in his unit to identify labor trafficking as:

They know what labor trafficking is, but again I think it’s a little bit difficult because sex is so much easier. This woman is being raped 30 times a night. We have a case. With labor trafficking, I’ve heard comments where agents will say, “My dad had a farm. I picked tomatoes on his farm when I was a kid. Am I victim of labor trafficking?” It’s a little bit like we all work hard. It’s easier to dismiss people working really hard as victims of trafficking as opposed to people who are forced to have sex and [are] controlled. (site 1, federal law enforcement)

Labor trafficking is a multi-cultural problem in our community. A community that does not identify with a problem, does not know how to solve the problem and create positive systemic change. Educating the general public and service providers about how to identify labor trafficking is the first step to secure resources to help victims.

To learn more about labor trafficking, we will cover the topic of how labor trafficking concerns immigrant populations and immigration policies in the United States in our next Newsletter. To learn more about Labor Trafficking, please participate in our Speaking Series on May 27, 2021.


2019 U. S. national human trafficking hotline statistics. (2021, May 19). Retrieved from Polaris Project: https://polarisproject.org/2019-us-national-human-trafficking-hotline-statistics/

Bigio, J., & Welch, H. (2020, August 10). As the global economy melts down, human trafficking is booming. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/10/as-the-global-economy-melts-down-human-trafficking-is-booming/

Carlson, A., & Neumann, S. (2021, April 13). 'We have nothing': what's happening at the southern border as more and more migrants turn to the U.S. Retrieved from People.com: https://people.com/politics/whats-happening-at-the-us-mexico-border/

Evans, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Banuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., . . . McDevitt, J. (2014). Understanding the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor traffikcing in the United States. Urban Institute; Northeastern University.

Fact sheet: labor trafficking. (2021, May 16). Retrieved from U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Trafficking in Persons: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/archive/otip/fact-sheet/fact-sheet-labor-trafficking-english

Green card vs visa: what's the difference? (2021, May 19). Retrieved from Boundless: https://www.boundless.com/immigration-resources/green-card-vs-visa/#:~:text=The%20biggest%20difference%20between%20visas,that's%20not%20the%20only%20difference.&text=Green%20cards%20are%20only%20obtained,to%20getting%20a%20green%20card.

Human trafficking vs smuggling. (2021). Retrieved from ice.gov: https://www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report/2017/CSReport-13-1.pdf

Isacson, A. (2021, March 26). Weekly U.S.-Mexico border update: March migration numbers and new projections. Retrieved from WOLA: https://www.wola.org/2021/03/weekly-border-update-march-2021-migration-numbers/

Owens, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Banuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., . . . McDevitt, J. (2014). Understanding the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor traffikcing in the United States. Urban Institute; Northeastern University.

Richter, F. (2021, February 4). COVID-19 has caused a huge amount of lost working hours. Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/02/covid-employment-global-job-loss/

Sands, G. (2021, May 3). Nearly 6,000 undocumented immigrants apprehended daily at US-Mexico border in April. Retrieved from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/03/politics/nearly-6000-daily-border-encounters-april/index.html

Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States, Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, Northeastern University


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