Labor Day is a national holiday celebrated in the United States on the first Monday of September. It was created by the labor movement to celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers. Yet as Americans celebrate the “American Worker” this Labor Day, thousands of people, maybe even millions, are working within the country in inhumane conditions with little to no pay.



The number of forced labor victims within the United States has long been disputed due to the covert nature of the crime and high levels of underreporting. While the U.S. government stopped publishing figures in 2006, their last estimate of individuals trafficking into the United States for both labor and sex trafficking was between 14,500 and 17,500. More recent studies suggest that the number is much higher. In order to investigate the prevalence of labor trafficking, the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, funded a study on migrant laborers in San Diego County, California. The study found labor trafficking victimization to be “rampant” among undocumented, Spanish-speaking immigrant workers. The study estimated that over 30 percent of this population consisted of labor trafficking victims.

The most common types of labor trafficking in the United States include individuals forced to or coerced into work as domestic servants, farmworkers, or factory workers. The conditions that they endure are much like those fought against in the labor movement: little to no wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Labor trafficking victims in the United States, however, gain no benefit from the hard-fought labor rights movement, as they work in conditions under the radar of the U.S. Department of Labor. Their traffickers exploit them using “force, fraud, and coercion,” including violence, imprisonment, and threat of deportation.

Denise Brennan, chair of the department of anthropology at Georgetown University, recently published a study from over a decade of field work focusing on labor trafficking victims in the United States. In her work, Dr. Brennan found that U.S. immigration policies increase the opportunities for traffickers to exploit or coerce laborers. The over two million deportations that have occurred under the Obama administration have drastically decreased the likelihood that exploited workers would report abuse, even if they have guest worker visas. 

Dr. Brennan found that under-regulated workplaces may be contributing to the problem of labor trafficking even more than harsh immigration policies. Low-wage sectors are frequently unprotected and under-regulated, thus facilitating exploitation. In a recent interview Dr. Brennan explained, “If you want to fight trafficking, you need to fight for workers’ rights.”

Over 125 years have passed since the U.S. government first recognized Labor Day and the importance of the labor movement. But reform remains a vital need for the U.S. workforce.

Image credit Polaris Project