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October 31, 2014

Urban Institute Report Highlights Scale of Labor Trafficking

By Juan Pablo Perez-Sangimino

Of the world’s estimated 19 million human trafficking victims, the majority (16.5 million) are victims of labor trafficking, which includes forced work in factories, agriculture, construction, hotels, restaurants, and domestic work.  About 4.5 million are victims of sexual exploitation, according to the International Labor Organization. While sex slavery is indeed a heinous crime, labor trafficking often takes the back burner in conversations about modern slavery, despite its pervasiveness.

Foreign workers who fall victim to labor trafficking are more likely to have entered the country legally, not illegally, according to a new report published on October 21st by the nonpartisan Urban Institute and Northeastern University. The report included interviews with 86 immigrant labor trafficking victims as well as interviews with over 150 people who had some connection to the victims, including a number of recruiters and traffickers.

The study reveals that 71% of victims entered the U.S. after receiving the legal paperwork required. In addition, it found that the majority had not sustained physical abuse, but rather, extremely traumatizing and dehumanizing psychological abuse. According to Northwestern criminology professor Amy Farrell, “members of a family were instructed not to use their [family] name” or talk to each other with the result that “they felt less than human and unworthy” of receiving help.

Many of these victims were recruited in their home countries either by someone they knew, or by a well-dressed, seemingly wealthy recruiter. They were charged an average of $6,150 U.S. dollars for passage to the United States, which forced many workers to sell their homes and go into debt. They considered it worthwhile, however, to get to the United States where the recruiter had promised high wages and a better life. Once they arrived, their hellish experience began. Often required to work 18-22 hours a day and to eat off the floor, victims have no semblance of privacy or anything to call their own. Rarely, if ever, are they allowed to leave their area of work. Not only are they denied wages, but rather are often told that they are incurring more debt to the traffickers for “services” rendered. 

The report offers a number of recommendations for how to curb labor trafficking, including better education of border officials, embassy employees, and law enforcement on the signs of trafficking, increasing awareness of immigrants about their rights, and tougher trafficking and recruiting laws. Private companies should also be required to investigate and certify that there is no slavery in their supply chains.

One victim in the report noted that no consulate staff member interviewed her before granting her visa, and another went to her interview with the trafficker. When a consulate member noted suspicious behavior, she merely gave the soon-to-be slave two trafficking pamphlets in private, explaining to the victim that the trafficker would confiscate one and that she could hide the other in her underwear.

The first challenge to tackle, however, is raising the political will to protect potential victims of trafficking. As a former Department of Labor employee explained, “The consulates are worried about terrorists, not victims.” Other employees agreed that these crimes simply are not a priority.