Lax Enforcement and Legal Loopholes Enable Labor Trafficking Victimization

 Broadest look ever at victim experiences in five major US industries

This study chronicles the experiences of labor trafficking victims from the point of recruitment for work, their forced labor victimization, their attempts to escape and get help, and their efforts to seek justice through civil or criminal cases. The report finds that legal loopholes and lax enforcement enable labor traffickers to commit crimes against workers in major US industries: agriculture, domestic work, hotels, restaurants, and construction. Interview and case file data detail the ubiquity of trafficking, which occurs both in plain sight and behind lock and key. Detailed recommendations propose next steps for policy and practice.

CONTACT: Kate Villarreal,, (202) 261-5404; Stu Kantor,, (202) 261-5283

WASHINGTON, DC, October 21, 2014 — Jurisdictional gray areas between local and federal law enforcement agencies and the US Department of Labor (DOL) result in no entity taking full responsibility for initiating investigations into labor trafficking crimes, a new Urban Institute and Northeastern University report finds. This enforcement gap, combined with loopholes in state labor laws and federal guest-worker programs, enables traffickers to commit abuses against workers ranging from wage theft to attempted murder.

The comprehensive report, based on research funded by the National Institute of Justice, chronicles victims' experiences from the point of recruitment for work, labor trafficking victimization, attempts to escape and get help, and efforts to seek justice through civil or criminal cases. The 309-page report, released today with an interactive feature entitled Hidden in Plain Sight, is the first study to focus on labor trafficking in multiple industries: agriculture, domestic service in private residences, hotels, restaurants, and construction.

"What we found most surprising was that the majority of labor trafficking victims in our study came here with visas," said lead researcher Colleen Owens. "In one case, recruiters promised construction workers $10 an hour plus overtime and employer-provided food and housing. They charged workers up to $25,000 in fees and arranged H2B visas. When the workers got here, they were forced to live in shipping containers, surrounded by armed guards, harassed, worked around the clock, and were fed spoiled oatmeal once a day. Once they received their paychecks, so many deductions had been taken out for food, housing, and legal fees that they were basically left with nothing."

The federal Trafficking Victims Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 criminalizes the use of violent, fraudulent, or coercive tactics by employers, recruiters, or contractors to force people to work.

The report draws from the closed legal records of 122 labor trafficking victims and 86 interviews with survivors, local and federal law enforcement agents, legal advocates, and service providers throughout the United States. Hundreds of quotations detail interviewees' experiences with trafficking—a surprisingly ubiquitous practice that often occurs in plain sight, as well as behind lock and key.

Victims and Suspects

  • Victims came to the United States in pursuit of work from all over the world; 71 percent entered on a lawful visa, but 69 percent were unauthorized by the time they escaped and sought help.
  • US citizens and foreign nationals, including diplomats, were perpetrators.


  • Recruiters, most often working in victims' home countries, used false promises and aggressively pressured victims to commit to employment offers.
  • Some recruiters worked for third-party employment agencies that were contracted by US companies.
  • Most victims who entered without authorization were smuggled into the country.


  • Traffickers used multiple forms of abuse to dehumanize victims, including psychological manipulation; threats against family members; control of housing, documents, food, and transportation; wage theft; extortion; torture; sexual abuse and rape; and attempted murder.
  • Many victims tried to get help from bystanders who witnessed their abuse, but they did not receive it.

Escape and Survivor Needs

  • Since temporary work visas are tied to specific employers, some victims risked losing their legal status if they tried to leave.
  • Most survivors escaped by running away.
  • Survivors' greatest needs were emergency shelter and long-term transitional housing, which were frequently in short supply.

Criminal Justice Process

  • Labor trafficking investigations were not a priority for local law enforcement agencies. In cases that did move forward, victims were rarely awarded civil damages or criminal restitution.
  • Some victims were arrested and placed into deportation proceedings or threatened with deportation by immigration officials.
  • In some cases, anti-immigrant sentiment and skepticism toward victims from local law enforcement jeopardized survivors' relief and access to services.


To comprehensively improve how labor trafficking crimes are identified and addressed, the study's authors recommend four courses of action: close loopholes in labor and immigration laws; implement coordinated efforts between law enforcement agencies and the DOL to identify, investigate, and prosecute cases; increase housing, job training, and other services for victims; and enhance outreach to a public that is largely unaware that crimes resembling slavery take place in America.

Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States was written by principal investigators Colleen Owens (Urban Institute), Meredith Dank (Urban Institute), and Amy Farrell (Northeastern University), along with Justin Breaux (Urban Institute), Isela Bañuelos (Urban Institute), Rebecca Pfeffer (Northeastern University), Katie Bright (Northeastern University), Ryan Heitsmith (Northeastern University), and Jack McDevitt (Northeastern University). The study was funded by the US Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice.

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