Urban Wire Hidden in plain sight: labor trafficking in the United States
Matthew Johnson
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Below is an excerpt from an interactive feature about a comprehensive new study on labor trafficking in the United States, led by Colleen Owens and Meredith Dank of the Urban Institute, and Amy Farrell of Northeastern University.

Human trafficking generates a lot of media coverage in the United States, but that reporting often focuses on sex trafficking.

Grabbing fewer headlines is the insidious and destructive practice of labor trafficking, whose victims are lied to and surreptitiously, sometimes violently, forced to work for little or no money.

It can happen anywhere. Indoors or outdoors; behind lock and key or out in the open; in rural or urban settings; and within relationships involving employers, employees, and subcontractors.

But labor trafficking is often misunderstood, making it hard for authorities, law enforcement, and everyday people to recognize it, even when it’s right in front of them.

A new Urban Institute–Northeastern University study, the first of its kind, comprehensively analyzes the state of labor trafficking in the United States. Researchers investigated 122 closed labor trafficking cases that took place across a wide array of industries, in four different regions, and conducted 28 subsequent interviews with survivors of labor trafficking.

Labor trafficking often depends on lies and coercion

In most of the cases of labor trafficking reviewed, the deception began with a recruiter and was quickly followed by coercive tactics that aimed to extract expensive fees from the victim and move them into the United States for further exploitation and abuse.

Recruiters typically act as a layer of security between traffickers in the United States and recruitment happening abroad. Often, recruiters work for employment agencies three or four degrees removed from the entrapment taking place.

Preliminary recruitment meetings almost always began with a misrepresentation of the job, immigration benefits, living conditions, and pay being offered. Of the study’s 122 cases, 93 percent began with this type of fraud.

But many traffickers didn’t just rely on fraudulent promises to recruit; they also employed a bevy of high-pressure sales tactics to coerce victims into signing contracts and paying expensive recruitment fees. Approximately 54 percent of the cases showed that coercion was used to recruit victims, and 48 percent showed that fees were paid.

These fees are often cripplingly high — $6,150 on average. Victims often borrowed money, used their homes or those of family members as collateral, or sold family property outright to pay these fees.

What’s more, these debts and familial obligations give traffickers leverage to control victims once forced labor begins in earnest.

After contracts were signed, most victims interviewed had to go to the US embassy or consulate to obtain guest worker visas. The overwhelming majority interviewed — 71 percent — entered the United States legally; 29 percent came into the country without legal documents.

Embassy visits provide a chance for US officials to look for and identify signs of labor trafficking and stop it before it starts. But in the cases studied, these opportunities were often missed.

One reason is the majority of victims interviewed said their traffickers coached them for visa interviews. And embassy and consulate staffers are generally not trained to identify signs of labor trafficking.

At best, embassies and consulates might offer applicants a pamphlet to inform them of their rights in the United States. Unfortunately for most victims, the unconscious march toward exploitation and trafficking continues.

Read more about how trafficking occurs, what happens to victims, and what we can do about it in our interactive feature.

Photo: A migrant worker in Lyons, Georgia. (David Goldman/AP Photo)


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Victims of crime Crime and justice analytics Human trafficking Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center