Labor trafficking is a devastating crime that robs victims of their humanity and denies workers basic human rights. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines labor trafficking as: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 1.5 million of the 20.9 million global victims of forced labor come from Developed Economies and the European Union (International Labour Office, 2012). Yet measuring the extent of both sex and labor trafficking within the United States has proven difficult (de Cock, 2007; Farrell et al., 2010; Tyldum, 2010; Zhang et al., 2014). In large part, researchers attribute this challenge to the hidden and criminal nature of human trafficking. Law enforcement and victim service agencies experience additional challenges that complicate efforts to identify and respond to cases, such as language barriers, citizenship status, and work industry-specific practices. Despite identification challenges (Barrick et al., 2014; Brennan, 2005; Farrell et al., 2010, 2015; Farrell & Pfeffer, 2014), we know that labor trafficking exists in both formal and informal industries within the United States. Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows over 5,000 calls have been made about potential cases of labor trafficking since 2007, with most calls concerning the domestic servitude, agriculture, traveling sales crews, restaurant/fast food, and health and beauty service industries (Polaris Project, 2019).
Existing research on labor trafficking in the U.S. has mainly focused on the experiences of legal or undocumented migrant communities. As a result, we know very little about the phenomenon of labor trafficking or the attributes and profiles of its U.S. citizen victims. There are numerous reasons to believe U.S. citizens are vulnerable to and are victims of labor trafficking. U.S. citizens have a multitude of factors that increase their risk of labor trafficking victimization, including disadvantaged socio- economic backgrounds, cognitive disabilities, low levels of education, drug addiction, and homelessness (Bales, 2004; Barrick et al., 2014; Shamir, 2012; Zhang, 2007, 2012).
Furthermore, research by Owens et al. (2014) suggests that foreign national labor trafficking victims commonly entered the U.S. on visas and sometimes worked in exploitive industries alongside U.S. citizen workers. Despite the potential vulnerabilities of U.S. citizen workers, there have been few efforts to collect data on labor trafficking among this group.
Law enforcement identify few U.S. citizen victims of labor trafficking because the police are more likely to think of U.S. citizen victims of human trafficking as sex trafficking victims (Farrell et al., 2015). In sex trafficking investigations involving U.S. citizens, authorities have uncovered some cases of sexualized labor or situations where both sex and labor trafficking are present, but identification of labor trafficking victimization is much less common.
Like their foreign-born counterparts, U.S. citizens may face exploitative practices that fall under a range of labor law violations, such as wage and tip theft, hazardous housing conditions, pay deductions, unsafe working conditions, and legal exemptions; however, these practices alone would not constitute labor trafficking. For example, tipped- employees are subjected to a lower wage standard (Minkler et al., 2014) and agricultural industries are often exempt from overtime pay requirements and require workers to work long hours, sometimes in toxic environments (Arcury et al., 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2014; McCurdy & Kwan, 2012), For domestic workers, living in their employers’ homes can lead to working extensive hours and a lack of sleep, privacy, and communication with their support systems that makes them vulnerable to exploitation (Burnham & Theodore, 2012).
Particular groups may also be vulnerable to labor trafficking. Runaway and homeless youth are commonly forced by employers to participate in door- to-door sales, begging networks, and peddling in dangerous neighborhoods over long workdays (Walts, 2017). They receive little pay, limited food, and unhealthy living conditions in return for unrealized promises of stable housing and income (Murphy, 2017; Roe-Sepowitz et al., 2018; Roe-Sepowitz & Bracy, 2020; Walts, 2017). In a ten-city study, Murphy (2017) found that 81% of homeless youth who were victims of labor trafficking were forced into drug dealing through the use of coercion and violence. Employers maintain power over youth workers through psychological and physical violence, yet authorities often do not label these cases as trafficking (Murphy, 2017).
Despite the reality that U.S. citizens experience labor trafficking, researchers have conducted no studies specifically on the vulnerability of U.S. citizen populations to this form of trafficking. This study fills this void by exploring labor exploitation and labor trafficking violations among U.S. citizens, with the goal of building basic knowledge about the phenomenon and the attributes of this victim population. Four research questions and objectives guide the present study. First, it is intended to help us understand how U.S. citizens experience labor trafficking victimization. Second, because U.S. citizens are typically provided numerous workplace and labor protections, we examine where labor trafficking experiences fall in a continuum of labor exploitation for U.S. citizens. Third, we also examine the personal and structural vulnerabilities that put U.S. citizens at risk for labor trafficking. Finally, we explore how U.S. citizen labor trafficking victims seek help or exit exploitative labor situations.
To answer these questions and achieve our objectives, we surveyed individuals (N = 240) who were at high risk for labor trafficking victimization and conducted one-on-one interviews with a subsample of 27 respondents. We conducted this study in three U.S. sites: Anchorage, Alaska; San Diego, California; and the Northeast (New York City (NYC), New York and Boston, Massachusetts). The survey questions captured different trafficking indicators that align with both international and U.S. government definitions of human trafficking, as well as abusive or exploitative labor practices. Structured items identified common elements for statistical analysis and open-ended questions explored the unique experience of victimization. The surveyed population includes both U.S.-born citizens and those who were naturalized citizens at the time of their victimization. In addition to the one-on-one interviews with a subsample of survey respondents, the research team interviewed 20 service providers across all three sites who provide services ranging from workforce development to housing and shelter to U.S. citizens.
The most significant challenge in understanding labor trafficking victimization is identifying people who have likely experienced victimization but not reached out to authorities or service providers who could identify their situation as trafficking. Previous research studies have recruited survivors via specialized victim service providers who work with identified victims seeking T visa authorization (Owens et al., 2014). Because labor trafficking service providers commonly work with immigrant communities or within agencies that provide immigration advocacy, they identify few U.S. citizen victims. Absent an identified victim population, researchers must utilize sampling techniques that identify hidden populations. We utilized several forms of conventional snowball sampling strategies, which previous studies draw on to identify human trafficking victims within population samples. Our sampling methods do not intend to generate prevalence estimates or claim any representativeness of labor trafficking violations among U.S. citizens. Rather, we strive to capture the maximum range of labor trafficking experiences by including diverse individuals and employment situations in our data. In basic terms, we sought to begin to describe the terrain where little is known.
Our sampling strategies relied on collaboration with social service providers, government agencies, and community contacts who have specific knowledge of the existence of labor trafficking violations among U.S. citizens. Our purposive snowball sampling included screening criteria that deliberately sought individuals at risk of being victimized, such as runaway or homeless youth, people with variousforms of developmental and physical disabilities, and individuals engaged in underground or unregulated industries. The three study sites represent different structural, economic, and demographic risks for labor trafficking.
This study provides critical information about the least researched group of labor trafficking victims in the country. This study attempts to answer fundamental questions about U.S. citizen victims of labor trafficking, including their characteristics and the nature of their victimization. This preliminary look at the typology and basic patterns of U.S. citizen labor trafficking victimization is necessary to improve the recognition of and response to such victimization and inform the development of national and international anti-trafficking initiatives. Understanding the pathways by which workers are connected to and recruited into situations of gross labor violations is essential to closing off such paths. The findings from this study also provide insights into the key service needs of this population, how this population may encounter social service agencies and justice systems, and the degree to which existing services can assist U.S. citizen labor trafficking victims.