Without knowing it, most of us enable human trafficking. Frequently, when discussing human trafficking, we tend to focus on coerced commercial sex.
However, there is another insidious form of trafficking that spans multiple industries and whose profits depends on our continued participation. Labor-based trafficking is the often ignored, yet ever-present crime that most of us participate in without even knowing it.
Labor trafficking occurs when a person is forced through intimidation, manipulation, or threats to work against their will. The traffickers benefit by severely underpaying the worker, stealing their wages, or finding ways to continually charge the worker so that they are indebted and cannot leave their job. Traffickers may exert control by coercing workers to live in specified housing that usually fail to meet any type of habitability. Victims of labor trafficking experience physical assaults, malnourishment, and emotional abuse by the hands of their traffickers. The workers may end up in isolated or unknown areas without transportation or any viable means to leave their situation.
While any person can be a victim of labor trafficking, immigrants are sought out by traffickers because the traffickers know these are vulnerable workers they can easily exploit and control.
This is not just true of the undocumented community, but for immigrants as a whole; a study by Urban Institute found that in over 100 cases, over 70% of the survivors entered the U.S. with a valid visa.
In Chicago, for example, staffing agencies blatantly advertised their ability to provide “honest” and “sincere” Mexican workers to various Asian businesses. In 2015, after a lengthy investigation, the Illinois Attorney General brought suit against those employment agencies and restaurants owners, alleging that they purposefully sought out Latinx immigrant workers, who they advertised as Mexican, and sold their services to business owners. The Latinx workers were paid as little as $3.50 an hour, forced to live in squalid conditions, mistreated, harassed, and threatened. Chicago is not unique.
There are trafficking victims in all industries throughout the country.Victims of trafficking are working in restaurants, cleaning agencies, factories, farms, carnivals, and even in people’s private homes. And we, as consumers, remain blissfully unaware that the cooks at a restaurant aren’t allowed to eat during their 14 hour shifts; or that the workers who pick our tomatoes are forced to live in a building without running water; or that the carnival worker manning the ferris wheel is having his wages stolen. The sad truth is that we unknowingly benefit from the labor of trafficking victims.
Immigrants who are attributed the “positive” stereotype of being hard workers are especially at risk. But just as we can passively enable labor trafficking, we can actively combat it. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and you can use this time to make a difference: become aware of your local human trafficking issues, support workers’ rights campaigns that promote living wages and other basic rights, and most importantly, patronize businesses that are committed to treating their workers well.
Our decision on how to spend our money can either enable or hinder traffickers.
When we support businesses without caring about the workers’ conditions, we are complicit in this crime. When we ignore the vulnerability of our immigrant communities, we embolden the traffickers to continue to violate their rights. And when we only view human trafficking through a sex-crime lens, we ignore the countless victims that we interact with on a daily basis. We owe survivors of human trafficking better than that.