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July 08, 2016

U.S. Needs Designated Labor Trafficking Prosecutors across the Country

The 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released June 30 by the State Department, ranks countries from Tier 1 to Tier 3 based on their efforts to combat human trafficking.

The United States regularly ranks at Tier 1, the designation for countries that fully comply with the requirements and principles contained in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the primary federal law addressing human trafficking in the United States. Yet the U.S. law enforcement statistics reveal that despite a 61 percent increase in convictions for human trafficking crimes generally in 2015, the United States continues to lag in its efforts to investigate and prosecute labor trafficking cases.

In 2015, only four percent of human trafficking prosecutions and two percent of convictions involved labor trafficking, compared to nine percent of prosecutions and 15 percent of convictions in 2014. The percentage of labor trafficking cases has steadily declined since 2009, when they constituted 49 percent of federal prosecutions. 2015 saw the lowest percentages of labor trafficking prosecutions and convictions since the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.

Sixty-eight percent of the estimated 20.9 million trafficking victims worldwide are labor trafficking victims. It can happen in any industry, and in any country in the world. However, the TIP report states that of the 6,609 trafficking-related convictions worldwide in 2015, only 7 percent (456) were labor trafficking cases. This is in part because labor trafficking cases require more resources—they generally take longer to investigate, require more coordination between government agencies, and require unique expertise.

Labor trafficking cases are often harder to identify than sex trafficking cases. The type of the work that labor trafficking victims are forced into—e.g., domestic service, agricultural work, construction—is usually legal. The victims are often isolated from significant public contact. Prosecutors often have larger caseloads then they have time to prosecute, and are often unable to prioritize labor trafficking cases since they take longer and require more resources.

In 2011 the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched its Human Trafficking Enhanced Enforcement Initiative, a joint effort with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor (DOL). As part of that effort, the DOJ, DHS, and DOL convened specialized Anti-Trafficking Coordination Teams, known as ACTeams, in six districts around the country.

Through inter-agency coordination and proactive investigation, the ACTeams brought about a 119 percent increase in human trafficking cases filed from 2012-2013, compared to only a 14 percent increase in non-ACTeam districts during the same period. In June 2015, DOJ, DHS, and DOL added six more ACTeams.

Though the ACTeams have been very successful in increasing trafficking prosecutions overall, they have not had the same impact on our ability to bring labor traffickers to justice. Additional efforts are necessary to increase state and local competency to investigate and prosecute labor trafficking cases.

Human Rights First believes the TVPA should be amended to designate at least one labor trafficking prosecutor to each ACTeam district. By assigning prosecutors to proactively investigate and prosecute labor trafficking cases the DOJ, DOL, and DHS can ensure dedicated attention to forced labor cases, and ultimately increase accountability for labor traffickers across the United States.