Learn the signs to spot possible labor trafficking in the workforce
by Marlee Drake
There are several common industries in which victims of labor trafficking are exploited in the U.S. If you subcontract out parts of the work on a construction site, for example, or if you purchase goods from a manufacturer, you could unwittingly work with a company that is trafficking laborers or forcing people to work without pay. In 2020, 1,052 cases of labor trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline according to the National Institute of Justice. While this is a smaller percentage of trafficking victims in the U.S., with the Department of Health and Human Services reporting that 8% of those served in their victim assistance program for domestic victims of human trafficking in 2021 were known labor trafficking victims, it needs to be combatted.
The battle against human trafficking needs to be both a large-scale and local effort. Addressing this problem at the individual level requires education and knowing the signs of a potential trafficking situation.
What is Labor Trafficking?
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines severe forms of human 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.” For a situation to be considered trafficking, force, fraud or coercion has to be present if the person is an adult. The industries where trafficking is most present include agriculture, domestic work, landscaping, factories and manufacturing, construction and healthcare, according to the Human Trafficking Capacity Business Center.
How Does it Happen?
Many of the victims of labor trafficking are immigrants to the U.S. According to Polaris, an organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking, many are promised work and come to the U.S. legally with temporary work visas, only for their employer to trap them once they’re here by claiming they’ve incurred a debt and need to stay longer to pay it off or by taking away needed documentation.
“Sometimes the U.S. is sold as the American dream, and people go through legal avenues,” says Luz Aramburo, the program director of research and funding for the Center for Justice and Reconciliation. “They think they’re going to participate in this American dream, then they get screwed over.”
According to Aramburo, once a victim has overstayed their visa, their trafficker gains further power in the situation. They can dissuade them from contacting authorities, since the victim is no longer residing in the U.S. legally, and tell them that the authorities would side with the trafficker anyway. This way, people end up stuck in a situation where they feel they have no way to escape.
Traffickers take advantage of vulnerable people, and education can often be a huge factor in someone’s vulnerability. This is part of why people in foreign countries are often targeted and recruited by traffickers. They’re less likely to know their rights, both in general and as a worker, in the U.S. than a citizen would. If they speak little to no English, this also increases the likelihood that they can be taken advantage of.
“If you don’t know your rights, you don’t know when they’re being violated,” Aramburo said.
What Does it Look Like?
There are a few red flags that you can keep an eye out for on your jobsite. Any kind of labor violation can be a red flag, according to Aramburo. This includes workers working incredibly long hours or abnormal hours, like if they’re working late into the night or are always available, or if you find out they’re not being compensated appropriately. Traffickers may justify paying below minimum wage by providing food and board, but these conditions may not match the value of the pay they’re withholding. They may also force employees to work in dangerous conditions without proper breaks or safety gear.
If the workers are living or working in isolated conditions and cut off from support systems, this can also be an indicator, like if they’re living at their worksite, or if they seem to be monitored by someone when interacting with others, according to Polaris.
For the workers, Aramburo said the work they end up doing may look different from what they originally were told. They may feel like they cannot leave their work and feel scared or unsafe at work.
How Do You Respond to a Potential Trafficking Situation?
When you have identified some red flags with someone you’re working with, Aramburo warns against engaging directly unless you are trained in how to deal with these types of situations. Instead, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. You can also contact the Department of Labor to report labor violations. If you believe the victim is a minor, contact the police as well.
If you would like to help fight against human trafficking in the U.S., you can donate to organizations like the Center for Justice and Reconciliation or Polaris. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Listo of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor can help you become a more informed consumer and avoid products made globally with forced labor.