Faces of Labor Trafficking in the United States

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Human trafficking generates extensive national interest and media coverage in the United States, but that attention often focuses solely on sex trafficking. In addition to incidents of sex trafficking, there are also cases of labor trafficking and labor exploitation that happen every day in the United States. U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, and children can be victims of labor trafficking. Immigration status, recruitment debt, isolation, poverty, and a lack of strong labor protections are some of the vulnerabilities that lead to labor trafficking in the United States. Given the diversity of environments that labor trafficking can occur within the United States, it is important to understand more about labor trafficking and who is particularly vulnerable.

Xue Sun, a manicurist who uses the name Michelle, in the Flushing, Queens, apartment she shared with her cousin, Jing Ren, and four other people. Curtains separate the beds.

Xue Sun, a manicurist who uses the name Michelle, in the Flushing, Queens, apartment she shared with her cousin, Jing Ren, and four other people. Curtains separate the beds.

(Photo Credit: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

In 2014, the Urban Institute issued a ground-breaking report on labor trafficking in the United States. The report, Hidden in Plain Sight, identified some important factors among labor trafficking cases in the U.S., such as the high likelihood of recruitment fees and smuggling costs that workers had to pay to even be considered for jobs in the United States. Additionally, the report found that a high number of foreign national labor trafficking victims were brought to the United States through legal immigration means such as guest worker visa programs.

In the U.S., labor trafficking is most prevalent in domestic work, agriculture, the hospitality and construction industry. It has also been reported to occur in door-to-door sales crews, health services and carnivals.

Domestic work in the United States represents the industry with the most identified labor trafficking victims. Domestic work generally refers to workers, primarily women, who are employed in child care, elder care, or domestic service in private residences and nursing homes. These workers are highly susceptible to labor exploitation due to the isolated nature of their work, their living situations which often include living and working in the same location, and their dependence on their employers. Recent high profile cases of domestic workers exploitation in the United States involved foreign diplomatic families living in the U.S. The struggles that domestic workers face in the United States to receive fair wages and humane treatment illustrate the vulnerability that migrant domestic workers experience worldwide.

Labor exploitation occurs in American agricultural communities. With large agricultural companies dependent on seasonal labor to harvest crops, there are many work employment opportunities for migrant workers in the U.S. agricultural system but also opportunities for exploitation. A 2013 National Institute of Justice study examining labor trafficking among North Carolina migrant farm workers found that at least 25% of workers experienced labor trafficking and approximately 39% experienced other abuse such as restrictions of physical liberty, passport confiscation, threats and verbal abuse.

Some victims of labor exploitation in the United States work in other service-based industries, such nail salons. As manicures and pedicures have become a more common beauty activity, the growth of the number of nail salons in the United States has mushroomed, and along with it the demand for low cost labor. The New York Times recently discovered that some nail salons in the New York area pay as little as $60/day starting rate for nail technicians to work in their salons for 10-12 hours a day. The nail salons utilize mostly foreign national women, including immigrants from Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. These women endure long hours, little or no pay, and frequently also must pay the nail salon owner to “train” in the first few months of service.

When talking about human trafficking in the United States, it is important that we include discussions about labor trafficking and exploitation and remember that labor trafficking victims toil every day in our fields, caring for children and elderly, and in our service industries. Labor trafficking does occur in the United States and can be prevented.

Ashley Feasley is the Director of Advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC.