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Spotlight on Labor Trafficking 

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) was signed into law in 2000 to combat trafficking in persons and yet more than 20 years and five reauthorizations later, we still lack methodical systems to identify, investigate, and support labor trafficked victims. 

Labor trafficking is considered a form of modern-day slavery because it requires individuals to perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. For example, a worker may agree to do a job, discover that the conditions are not what were agreed upon or expected, however they are prevented from leaving the job by their employer. One of the least known, but widely used, forms of labor trafficking is debt bondage, where a person is forced to pay off a debt and tricked into working for little or no pay where they will never be able to satisfy the debt. 

The demand for labor trafficking is high, which fuels the traffickers’ use of threats, lies, and violence to coerce or force people to work against their will in a variety of U.S. industries. According to 2020 statistics, the three most common industries for labor trafficking in the U.S. were domestic work (38%), restaurant or food industries (21%), and agriculture (14%). 

So, who’s doing the trafficking? The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports that “two-thirds of labor traffickers were male, and most were in their thirties or forties. About half were U.S. citizens and half were non-citizens (either holding a nonimmigrant visa or unauthorized), but this varied across industries. In agricultural cases, 82 percent of suspects were U.S. citizens. But in hospitality, restaurant and domestic servitude cases, suspects were much more likely to be non-citizens.” 

Traffickers typically target vulnerable populations to enslave, populations such as “children, individuals without lawful immigration status, those with debts, and those who are isolated, impoverished, or disabled, to name a few. U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, and children can all be victims of forced labor” according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

The State Department paints a picture of a group of rescued victims in a recent Trafficking in Persons report noting that “more than half of all adult victims were female. Out of 892 foreign national child victims certified, 614 were labor trafficking victims, 251 were sex trafficking victims, and 27 were victims of both labor and sex trafficking.”    

Sex trafficking gets a lot more media coverage and attention, but studies show that there is more work to be done to shine the spotlight on labor trafficking in our nation. The National Institute of Justice reports that “by and large, labor trafficking investigations were not prioritized by local or federal law enforcement. Survivors mostly escaped on their own and lived for several months or years before being connected to a specialized service provider. Local and federal law enforcement agencies had difficulty defining labor trafficking and separating it from other forms of labor exploitation and workplace violations.” 

Local, federal and immigration law enforcement need additional training in identifying labor trafficking and there is a greater need for service and immigration provisions for victims within our borders.  Both policymakers and nonprofits have an opportunity to bring awareness to this growing issue and speak out about the necessary course corrections that can be made to prevent labor trafficking before it starts and provide justice and services to those who have fallen victim to this crime. 


 Bill Woolf, Principal & Strategy Consultant