Labor Trafficking is Closer Than You Think

Human trafficking experts estimate that globally, labor trafficking is more common than sex trafficking.

But numbers in the United States show that only 16% of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline were labor trafficking cases. Polaris, the organization that runs the hotline, believes that labor trafficking cases in the US are likely far more common but are under-reported for a variety of reasons, including lack of awareness and the specific aspects of labor trafficking victims’ cases.

The Scope

US law 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” (22 USC § 7102(9)) in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). Labor trafficking doesn’t need a complete absence of pay in order to be considered forced labor. Victims are often underpaid or have wages taken out as debt repayment, rent, and more without official or legal documentation and compensation.

Labor trafficking impacts almost all of our lives in some capacity—through supply chains, factories, or the business next door. It can exist in many forms: 

  • Domestic work and servitude
  • Traveling sales crews
  • Restaurants and food services
  • Peddling and begging
  • Agriculture
  • Health and beauty services
  • Construction
  • Hotels and hospitality
  • Landscaping
  • Illicit activities (drug trafficking, etc.)
  • Arts, entertainment, and carnivals
  • Cleaning services
  • Factories and manufacturing
  • Forestry and logging
  • Healthcare
  • Recreational facilities

Victims have been found in each of these industries in the US and in many of these industries around Pittsburgh. In 2017, domestic work and agriculture were the largest reported areas for labor trafficking. You can read about the different trafficking industries in Polaris’s report.

The Victims

Both US citizens and foreign nationals are subject to labor trafficking the United States; however, foreign victims are more commonly found in these situations. In 2016, almost 60% of labor trafficking victims were foreign. Foreign victims are vulnerable because they don’t always understand legal documents for immigration, work status, legal rights, and labor rights and laws. In 2014, Urban Institute did a study on labor trafficking victims, which showed showed that 71% of them had entered the US by legal means. Because of their lack of understanding about US laws, traffickers can easily exploit victims by keeping their documents, withholding pay, and threatening deportation or incarceration.

71% of labor trafficking victims had entered the US by legal means, in a 2014 study by Urban Institute. -@allienicolereef, @urbaninstitute Click To Tweet

The study also showed that 93% of the victims in the study had been mislead by traffickers about the actual job, immigration benefits, living conditions, or pay. Victims often report paying recruiting fees ranging from $1,750 to $25,000 and have “fees” taken out of their paychecks to pay the traffickers back for transportation, rent, food, immigration fees, and more. Many victims also face violence in the workplace. Some employers don’t realize they are exploiting their workers, believing that because they are immigrants, they don’t have to pay them adequate wages, provide the same benefits, or ensure safe work environments.

The Signs

Signs of labor trafficking are often hard to spot without asking the right questions, and victims don’t typically have the answers, which is also a sign of trafficking. Employment situations that raise red flags are often coerced or forced labor situations. Here are some commons signs that indicate a person is a potential labor trafficking victim:

  • Is not free to come/go as they please
  • Works very long hours or unusual hours, often without breaks
  • Has unusual restrictions at work
  • Lives at workplace or in shelter provided by employer
  • Has living costs or debt repayment taken out of paycheck
  • Does not know the employer address, name, company, phone number, etc.
  • Does not have their immigration or ID documents because the employer keeps them
  • Is not provided with necessary safety wear or equipment for work
  • Does not receive regular or documented payments
  • Acts nervous or reluctant to answer questions about work

Ways to Take Action Locally

If you notice these signs, you can connect to Pittsburgh’s available resources for human trafficking victims. The best step to take is to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline or have the victim contact the hotline by phone, text, or email. The hotline directs the caller to a local place or person who can evaluate the situation and take appropriate action. The Pittsburgh FBI office also has a local human trafficking hotline. 

Pittsburgh also has several other resources available, including the local FBI. The FBI connects victims to resources through organizations and outreach groups. Just a few of these groups are Living in Liberty, the Western PA Anti-Trafficking Coalition, and North Way Christian Community Justice Team. Victims with T-visas are eligible for case management services through local refugee resettlement agencies, and the Immigrant Services and Connections (ISAC) program can assist any immigrant, regardless of status. Justice at Work also works with labor trafficking victims to provide free legal services and community education.

The more that we learn about labor trafficking, the better equipped we can be to identify and help victims, keep employers accountable, and provide safe spaces for victims coming out of the situations.


Allie Reefer is a local advocate for refugees, immigrants, and human trafficking victims.

Is human trafficking something you’re passionate about? Sign up for A21’s Walk for Freedom in Pittsburgh on October 20. Join the fight against modern day slavery around the world!

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