Agricultural Work, America, Awareness, Captive Labor, Civil Labor Violations, Coercion, Discrimination, Document Fraud, Domestic Labor Trafficking, Domestic Servitude, Domestic Work, Extortion, Forced Labor, Fraud, H-2A Visa, Harassment, Labor Exploitation, Labor Trafficking, Labor Trafficking Investigation, Labor Trafficking Networks, Legal Advocates, Outreach, Psychological Abuse, Rape, Recruitment, Sexual Abuse, Survivor Outcome, Torture, US Department of Labor, Victim Service Providers, Victimization, Victimization Process
The 2014 Urban Institute/Northeastern University Research Report on Labor Trafficking in the US: Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations
This landmark study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice, examined the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor trafficking across multiple industries in the United States.
It examined labor trafficking victim abuse and exploitation along a continuum, from victims’ recruitment for work in the United States; through their migration experiences (if any), employment victimization experiences, and efforts to seek help; to their ultimate escape and receipt of services.
Three research questions guided the study:
1) What is the nature of the labor trafficking victimization experience in the United States?
2) How are domestic and international labor trafficking syndicates operating in the United States organized? Who are the traffickers, and what is their connection to other illicit networks that help facilitate labor trafficking operations? and
3) What are the challenges of law enforcement investigating labor trafficking cases identified by victim service providers? Why are so few identified cases investigated and prosecuted?
Data for this study came from a sample of 122 closed labor trafficking victim service records from service providers in four US cities.
In addition, interviews were conducted with labor trafficking survivors, local and federal law enforcement officials, legal advocates, and service providers in each site to better understand the labor trafficking victimization experience, the networks involved in labor trafficking and the escape and removal process, and the barriers to investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking cases.
All the victims in the study sample were immigrants working in the United States. The vast majority of the sample (71 percent) entered the United States on a temporary visa. The most common temporary visas were H-2A visas for work in agriculture and H-2B visas for jobs in hospitality, construction, and restaurants.
The study also identified female domestic servitude victims who had arrived in the United States on diplomatic, business, or tourist visas. Individuals who entered the United States without authorization were most commonly trafficked in agriculture and domestic work.
Labor trafficking victims’ cases were coded to collect information on their labor trafficking experience, as well as any forms of civil labor violations victims encountered.
All victims in the sample experienced elements of force, fraud and coercion necessary to substantiate labor trafficking. Elements of force, fraud and coercion included document fraud; withholding documents; extortion; sexual abuse and rape; discrimination; psychological manipulation and coercion; torture; attempted murder; and violence and threats against themselves and their family members.
In addition to criminal forms of abuse, it was found that labor trafficking victims faced high rates of civil labor exploitation. These forms of civil labor exploitation included, but were not limited to, being paid less than minimum wage; being paid less than promised; wage theft; and illegal deductions.
While legal under some visa programs and labor law, employers/traffickers also controlled the housing, food, and transportation of a significant proportion of the sample.
Immigration status was a powerful mechanism of control – with employers threatening both workers with visas and unauthorized workers with arrest as a means of keeping them in forced labor. Despite 71 percent of the sample arriving in the United States for work on a visa, by the time victims escaped and were connected to service providers, 69 percent were unauthorized.
By and large, labor trafficking investigations were not prioritized by local or federal law enforcement agencies. This lack of prioritization was consistent across all study sites and across all industries in which labor trafficking occurred.
The US Department of Labor was rarely involved. Survivors mostly escaped on their own and lived for several months or years before being connected to a specialized service provider. A lack of awareness and outreach, coupled with the victims’ fear of being unauthorized, inhibited the identification of survivors.
Characteristics of Labor Trafficking Victims and Suspects
Who are labor trafficking victims and perpetrators, and where does the victimization take place? Are labor traffickers involved in other illicit activities and criminal networks? The exploration of these and other questions revealed the following:
o Labor trafficking victims in this study were victimized across various work venues. The most common venues of exploitation were agriculture, hospitality, domestic service in private residences, construction, and restaurants.
o Roughly half the victims studied were male. Gender of victims varied by work venue. Almost all the agricultural workers were male, and nearly all the domestic service workers were female.
o Labor trafficking victims had diverse educational backgrounds. Some had very little formal education, but others had attained a great deal of education, some with college and graduate degrees.
o The majority of victims (71 percent) entered the United States on a lawful visa, but most victims were unauthorized (69 percent) by the time they escaped labor trafficking and sought services. Victims in agricultural work were less likely to have had lawful immigration status upon entry to the United States.
o Two-thirds of labor trafficking perpetrators were male, most of whom were in their thirties or forties. Perpetrators were both foreign nationals and US citizens.
o Nearly half the identified perpetrators were confirmed as being arrested. Various factors led to low arrest rates, including a reactive approach to labor trafficking investigations, prosecutorial declination of cases brought forward by victims, and suspects absconding to non-extradition countries. Victims’ fear of the police, fear of being deported, and reticence to provide information about their exploiters out of fear of retribution further inhibited labor trafficking investigations.
o Few formal connections were found between labor trafficking perpetrators and other criminal networks such as drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, or money laundering. Some perpetrators were involved in smuggling, document fraud, and sexual abuse.
Recruitment into Labor Trafficking
How are victims recruited, and what methods do traffickers and their associates use to recruit? Many survivors of labor trafficking came to the United States in search of an opportunity to better their lives and, often, the lives of their family members.
o Labor trafficking victims were most often recruited in their home countries for work in the United States.
o Victims first learned about the job opportunities that became labor trafficking situations through their social networks.
o Recruiters were working on behalf of third (or even fourth) party employment agencies, which were often located in the victim’s home country. Many of these agencies had direct ties to groups and organizations in the United States.
o Recruiters engaged in fraud and coercion during the recruitment process, using a combination of false promises and high-pressure, coercive tactics to get victims to commit to employment offers.
o On average, victims paid $6,150 in recruitment fees to recruitment agencies for jobs in the United States. This figure was higher than the annual per capita income of the top six countries of origin for victims in the sample.
o During the recruitment process, some victims came into contact with authority figures such as staff member of a US embassy or consulate during the visa application process. Recruiters and traffickers often trained the victims about the interview process with embassy or consulate staff.
What forms of movement/transport do traffickers use? Did victims come into contact with criminal justice or other authorities during their travel?
o For victims in the case record sample, movement to the United States most often originated in Asia and Latin America.
o To facilitate movement into the United States, victims usually obtained legal visas. Few victims in the sample used fraudulent documents, and approximately 29 percent of individuals entered the United States without authorization, many of whom were smuggled into the United States.
o The most common forms of transportation during the movement process involved flight (71 percent), the use of a car or van (52 percent), and walking (22 percent). Journeys that involved crossing the US–Mexican border were more likely than others to rely on multiple methods of transportation, such as walking and using cars or vans.
o During the movement process, similar to the recruitment stage, fraud and coercion were more prevalent than force. When force was present, it often took place in domestic servitude cases and cases involving immigrants who were unauthorized before their labor trafficking.
o Labor trafficking victims rarely came into contact with authorities during the movement process. Survivors who entered with visas met with immigration officials at the point of entry, but they often described their interactions as routine and uneventful.
Labor Trafficking Victimization and Labor Exploitation Experiences
What forms of intimidation or threats did traffickers use to force victims to remain in the exploitative situation? What are the distinctions between labor violations/labor exploitation and labor trafficking? In chapter 6, we document victimization experiences:
o All victims in our sample experienced elements of force, fraud, and coercion necessary to substantiate labor trafficking. These elements included document fraud, withholding documents, extortion, sexual abuse and rape, discrimination, psychological manipulation and coercion, torture, attempted murder, and violence and threats against victims and their family members.
o In addition to the criminal forms of abuse used to dehumanize victims, labor trafficking victims faced high rates of civil labor exploitation. These forms of exploitation included being paid less than minimum wage, being paid less than promised, wage theft, and illegal deductions.
o Although physical abuse and violence constituted the extreme forms of victimization that labor trafficking victims experienced, more subtle, nuanced forms of coercion and fraud were most common. In the cases of victims who were essentially hidden in plain sight—working jobs that required interacting with the public—traffickers used tactics to dehumanize them. For example, they told victims that no one would want to help them because of their immigration status.
o The types of labor trafficking victimization that individuals experienced varied by the industry in which they worked.
o Many victims interacted with individuals other than their traffickers, such as members of law enforcement, staff working for the trafficker (e.g., gardeners, secretaries, maintenance workers), or other coworkers. Although these encounters sometimes played a critical role in victims’ escapes, many of these interactions resulted in an unrealized opportunity for rescue.
Escape from Labor Trafficking
How did labor trafficking victims escape their situations, and who helped them?
o Physical barriers, psychological abuse, and law enforcement shortcomings (e.g., lack of familiarity with different ethnic groups and language barriers) created challenges in escaping.
o Fear of deportation made victims reluctant to contact law enforcement.
o Most victims escaped by running away. However, the support of community members, friends, and law enforcement were also important.
o In some cases, traffickers continued to contact victims after escape and expanded threats and harassment to the victims’ families in their home countries.
Survivor Outcomes after Escape
What services did victims need upon fleeing their situations? What were their long-term outcomes?
o After they escaped, survivors in the sample commonly went for several months or years until they were properly identified and connected to specialized service providers. During this time the majority of survivors were unauthorized, most as a result of their trafficking.
o As a consequence of being unauthorized, some labor trafficking victims were placed in deportation proceedings, threatened by immigration officials, and/or arrested and placed in detention centers.
o Secure emergency shelter and long-term transitional housing were the greatest needs and the greatest challenges reported by service providers, survivors, and law enforcement.
o Obtaining continued presence for labor trafficking survivors was extremely rare across sites.
o Civil damages and criminal restitution were rarely awarded to labor trafficking survivors.
o Some survivors reported challenges accessing social benefits they qualified for through their T visa (e.g., driver’s licenses, Social Security cards) because of a lack of program administrator awareness of human trafficking or T visa benefits.
o As a result of their victimization, labor trafficking survivors suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, psychosis, suicidal ideation and attempts, and fear and difficulty forming trusting relationships.
o Labor trafficking survivors tended to remain mired in low-wage work in the same industries in which they had been trafficked. Commonly, survivors remained in situations where they were at risk for further exploitation owing to a lack of work history, references, and job-training programs.
Criminal Justice Process
How does law enforcement in local communities define labor trafficking? What role does law enforcement play in investigating labor trafficking cases?
o Labor trafficking investigations were not prioritized by local law enforcement agencies.
o Local and federal law enforcement agencies had difficulty defining labor trafficking and separating it from other forms of labor exploitation and workplace violations.
o Law enforcement struggled to investigate labor trafficking cases that they believed had little evidence to corroborate victim statements.
o When involved in cases, law enforcement sometimes played a critical role in securing victims and facilitating victim services. This role was most common in domestic servitude cases.
o Local law enforcement was reluctant to pursue immigration relief for various reasons, including anti-immigration sentiment, lack of belief of victim statements, and challenges of working collaboratively with the US Department of Homeland Security.
Principal Recommendations for Policy and Practice
Policy and practice recommendations are presented below across four core areas:
1) Immigration, state, and labor law reform;
2) Criminal and civil justice policy and practice;
3) Awareness and outreach; and
4) Service provision.
Reforms to State and Federal Laws
o Immigration reform is needed for guest worker programs because tying a worker’s immigration status to a specific employer is one of the most powerful forms of control used against labor trafficking victims across industries. A oversight process with the goal of protecting workers from abuse is also needed, as is transparency for consumers about employers that traffic and use forced labor in their supply chains.
o Examine and strengthen state and federal labor laws to ensure back wage and overtime regulations are the same for foreign national and US workers, and to increase domestic worker rights under labor law.
o Enact state laws to ensure all companies certify a lack of slavery or forced labor in their supply chains. The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act is the only state law requiring US companies to disclose their efforts to ensure their supply chains are free of human trafficking. Other states should consider adopting similar laws. State governments could also look to the federal government’s executive order on trafficking in federal contracts and adapt similar laws applicable at the state level.
o Labor trafficking victims may be arrested for crimes or violations committed pursuant to their victimization. State laws should be amended to allow a victim’s criminal record to be expunged if the crimes committed were a direct result of being trafficked.
Criminal and Civil Justice Policy and Practice
o Specialized training is necessary to help law enforcement identify coercion and fraud that lead to trafficking as distinct from labor exploitation.
o Involve the US embassy and consulate staff in investigating the practices of overseas recruitment agencies used by American companies. These workers could be a powerful resource to help identify trafficking and exploitation situations before workers arrive in the United States.
o An independent agency, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, should audit and thoroughly review continued presence policies and practices for human trafficking.
o Federal policies surrounding diplomat and foreign official use of domestic workers and their relative immunity from criminal accountability for labor trafficking should be reexamined. If the criminal justice process is not a viable option, alternate forms of justice should be pursued, including payment of back wages to victims and deportation and non-renewal of visas for perpetrators.
Awareness and Outreach
o Public awareness campaigns about labor trafficking are needed. Campaigns could feature survivors’ voices, highlight a few major forms of labor trafficking, and indicate that labor trafficking can involve US citizens, as well as unauthorized and authorized immigrant workers in the United States. Materials should be developed in multiple languages and media formats.
o Training of state and local regulators that come into contact with trafficked persons during the course of routine inspections is also needed.
o Training of US embassy and consulate staff and border officials is pertinent to recognizing potential indicators of trafficking (e.g., payment of recruitment fees, immigration benefit promises). Staff should always privately interview those applying for visas.
o All individuals obtaining visas to the United States should be given information regarding their rights and numbers to call for help (911 and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center) by US embassy and consulate staff and by border officials.
o Major commercial airlines could develop, in consultation with anti-trafficking experts and survivors, short awareness-raising videos to be played, and available in several different languages, on airplanes arriving in the United States (71 percent of the sample arrived in the United States via airplane before they were labor trafficked).
o Funding through the Office for Victims of Crime or an alternative federal funding stream should be specifically dedicated to support civil litigation for trafficking survivors so they can collect back wages and damages. Efforts should also be made to better coordinate with the Department of Labor to file back wage claims for trafficking survivors. Dedicating responsibility to local department of labor officials assigned to labor trafficking back wage cases would be helpful.
o Create a national network of housing providers willing to work with service providers to increase short- and long-term housing options for survivors. Given that survivors lack credit histories and are often unable to work legally for months, service provider organizations could pay the cost of the apartment and then use a sliding scale of payment until survivors are back on their feet.
o Remove the requirement that trafficking victims cooperate with law enforcement to obtain T visas. Doing so may increase victim identification and cooperation.
o Explore options to increase availability of trauma-informed, linguistically-and culturally-competent mental health care.
o It is imperative that vocational training programs be created for survivors of trafficking and existing program requirements be amended to increase access.
This study was the first of its kind to examine the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor trafficking in multiple industries in the United States. It was also the first study to measure the use of force, fraud, and coercion throughout the continuum of recruitment, labor trafficking victimization, and victims’ efforts to escape and seek assistance.
Through service provider case reviews and interviews with survivors, service providers, and law enforcement, information was also uncovered regarding survivors’ long-term outcomes after their escape and their experiences with the criminal justice system, in addition to the barriers to investigating and prosecuting labor trafficking cases.
The vast majority of the sample (71 percent) entered the United States on a temporary visa. The most common were H-2A visas for work in agriculture and H-2B visas for jobs in hospitality, construction, and restaurants. Our study also identified female domestic servitude victims who had arrived in the United States on diplomatic, business, or tourist visas.
Victims were often recruited for work in the United States through recruitment agencies abroad. These agencies engaged in high levels of fraud and coercion and charged workers, on average, $6,150 for jobs in the United States.
Once in the United States, traffickers used various tactics to dehumanize victims and force their labor, including restricting their communication; monitoring and surveillance; manipulating debts they owed; physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; controlling victims’ housing and movement to work; keeping victims in substandard living conditions; and denying food and medical care. Victims were forced to work long hours, denied pay, or given less pay than promised.
Traffickers also manipulated workers to remain in forced labor by exploiting their immigration status. Victims were often hidden in plain sight, labor trafficked in jobs that involved interaction with the public. Ninety-four percent of the sample realized at some point they were being abused, but none were aware they were being labor trafficked and were afforded rights under law regardless of immigration status. Some victims reached out for help while being trafficked, but individuals failed to identify and help them, resulting in further demoralization.
By and large, labor trafficking investigations were not prioritized by local or federal law enforcement agencies. There was no evidence of arrest for more than half of all suspects identified. The Department of Labor was rarely involved in the proactive identification of trafficking victims. As such, labor trafficking victims mostly escaped on their own and lived for several months or years before being connected to a specialized service provider.
Sixty-nine percent of victims were unauthorized when they were connected to specialized service providers. Service providers met resistance from law enforcement in securing immigration relief in the form of continued presence for victims. Although the majority of victims in the sample were willing to cooperate in an investigation or prosecution of their traffickers, investigations and prosecutions were rare. Civil actions or back wage claims were also rarely pursued, further compounding victims’ debts and stolen wages.
Four Courses of Action Recommended
To comprehensively improve how labor trafficking crimes are identified and responded to, the study recommends four courses of action:
1) Close loopholes in labor and immigration laws;
2) Implement coordinated efforts between law enforcement agencies and the Department of Labor to identify, investigate, and prosecute cases;
3) Increase housing, job training, and other services for victims; and
4) Enhance outreach to a public largely unaware that crimes resembling slavery take place in America every day from coast to coast.
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