The estimates of human trafficking victims are just educated guesses. Given those exploiting them are breaking the law and victims fear retaliation if they get help, there’s a conspiracy of silence that’s clouding an accurate picture of the problem. Sufficient resources won’t be budgeted to address labor trafficking if its extent is unknown.
Victims of labor trafficking face a difficult cycle.
- Law enforcement may not focus on labor trafficking because it rarely gets media attention
- Greater public sympathy for sex trafficking victims may impact how prosecutors budget their resources
- Undocumented immigrants may fear reporting their situation will result in deportation, reducing the chances law enforcement will learn of the problem
- Law enforcement may not know how to investigate labor trafficking cases, which can be harder to prove than sex trafficking
Polaris, a nonprofit in charge of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, identified more than 22,000 sex trafficking cases from 2013 to 2018, about five times the number of labor trafficking cases it found. Bradley Myles, the group’s executive director, estimates that labor trafficking victims could number in the hundreds of thousands.
Immigrant victims may have had their passports taken away, been threatened with deportation or violence, or be forced into debt. What keeps victims in a state of slavery isn’t physical restraints, but fear.
In a 2012 federally sponsored study, Sheldon Zhang, the chair of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell School of Criminology and Justice Studies, found about 28 percent of undocumented Spanish-speaking migrants in San Diego County experienced labor trafficking. He said trafficking is much more common than what’s being reported.
The chair of Georgetown University’s anthropology department, Denise Brennan, said deportations under the Obama and Trump administrations discouraged victims from reporting abuse. Though they know they’re in an awful situation, they don’t know there may be legal protections if they contact law enforcement.
Another factor is federal law itself. Child sex trafficking cases can be successful without a showing force, fraud, or coercion, but child labor trafficking cases must prove those allegations. Law enforcement doesn’t often police workplaces. Officers may confuse labor trafficking (which violates criminal law) with labor exploitation (which violates labor and employment law). Exploitation could involve underpaying workers while trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion.
Sex and labor trafficking are victimizing thousands of people held in modern-day bondage, forced to work in many industries and criminal enterprises. If you are a victim, call the Human Trafficking Project at 844-SEEKJUSTICE (844-733-5587) to get help. If you’re an attorney who wants to help them, contact us at 855-477-8284 x101.
Edward Lott, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Human Trafficking Project, LLC