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April 27, 2015

JVTA Passed the Senate, but Labor Trafficking Issues Remain

Last Wednesday, the Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA) after weeks of delays and controversies. While this is an important step for fighting trafficking, and child sex trafficking in particular, Congress should do more to specifically tackle labor trafficking.

The JVTA has many positive provisions—including those that will better equip law enforcement to address child sex trafficking. In particular, codifying training requirements for law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and judges will help prepare them to confront the challenges that these crimes pose. In addition, the bill provides for enhanced reporting by law enforcement, which will furnish essential data for developing effective policies. The JVTA will also improve victims’ access to health services and compensation from their exploiters.

While we welcome these measures as a significant effort to tackle trafficking, Congress should adopt additional measures to tackle labor trafficking specifically.

The United States is both a destination and a source of goods and services produced with labor trafficking. The United States is the world’s largest importer, bringing in $2.4 trillion worth of goods in 2014. Its top imports include products known to have forced labor in the supply chain, as well as goods from countries with a high prevalence of forced labor. Labor trafficking also takes place in the United States: as the Signal International case demonstrates, workers fall into the hands of traffickers within our own borders, and the goods and services they provide are sold in our markets.

Very few cases concerning forced labor are prosecuted at the federal level. According to the State Department, only 31 individuals were indicted on labor trafficking related charges during fiscal year 2013 while 222 defendants were indicted on sex trafficking related charges. Clearly, the United States needs to do more to combat labor trafficking.

Congress should address practices that put vulnerable workers at a high risk of being trafficked. For example, as the Southern Poverty Law Center shows, Congress should revise the H-2 Guestworker visa program. The program deprives foreign workers of the most basic protections of U.S. law—such as effective access to justice to enforce their contracts—making them vulnerable to human trafficking. In fact, as the Signal International case shows, traffickers are relying on systems like this to conduct their operations.

Furthermore, Congress should ensure that law enforcement personnel and prosecutors obtain specific training on how to identify, investigate, and prosecute cases of labor trafficking. As a study by the Urban Institute established (p. 218), identifying incidents of labor trafficking remains a challenge for law enforcement personnel. If Congress wants to put traffickers out of business, it should ensure that the authorities have the tools and expertise needed to disrupt their operations.