Why Labor Trafficking is So Hard to Track

April 24, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Appearing at an event in Florida last week, President Donald Trump made a bold claim, saying that “human trafficking is worse than it’s ever been in the history of the world.”

Experts like Jean Bruggeman, the director of Freedom Network USA, a national anti-trafficking organization, say that’s nearly impossible to determine.

Inside the U.S., Bruggeman said, there are no reliable estimates on the number of victims of labor or sex trafficking — which under federal law, means being subjected to involuntary labor or commercial sex through “force, fraud, or coercion.”

Both crimes are hard to track, but experts say measuring the scope of labor trafficking is especially difficult because sex trafficking cases typically get more attention from law enforcement, federal prosecutors and the media. While federal human trafficking convictions increased by about 70 percent between 2009 and 2016, the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking has noted that sex trafficking investigations have received greater focus. In 2016, for example, the Justice Department prosecuted 241 federal trafficking cases — only 13 of which primarily involved labor.

Experts and advocates alike describe a self-perpetuating cycle, wherein agencies may not direct resources toward labor trafficking because the issue is rarely the focus of media attention. Prosecutors may be swayed by greater public sympathy for victims of sex trafficking, they say, than for labor trafficking victims. They say that undocumented victims fear reporting abuse and that law enforcement officials are often unfamiliar with how to investigate labor trafficking cases, which can be harder to prove than cases involving sex trafficking.

“In general, there is so much more attention paid to domestic [sex] trafficking of minors,” said Amy Fleischauer, the director of survivor support services at the International Institute of Buffalo, an organization that provides services for trafficking victims, and a leader of a federally-funded anti-trafficking task force in New York. “That’s where the media coverage is and that’s where law enforcement dollars [are] focused … Labor trafficking is mostly an afterthought, if a thought at all.”

Polaris, a nonprofit that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, has identified more than 22,000 sex trafficking cases in the last five years — an amount that’s about five times larger than the number of labor trafficking cases it has identified. Bradley Myles, the group’s executive director, estimates that labor trafficking victims could number in the hundreds of thousands. Many victims are immigrants, he said, both with and without legal status, and are trapped in situations where traffickers have taken away their passports, threatened to call federal immigration enforcement or have forced them into debt.

“It’s actually much more subtle than a lot of people think,” he said. “It doesn’t have to involve whips and chains and duct tape over people’s mouths … There’s [a] form of psychological control.”

In 2014, for example, federal and local law enforcement raided a trailer park in Marion, Ohio and found at least 10 trafficking victims, including eight minors. The human trafficking operation was allegedly run by a third party contractor hired by Trillium Farms, one of the country’s largest egg producers.

In an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary Trafficked in America, a former Trillium worker who says he worked with the teens said they would receive death threats for complaining about the amount of money being taken from their pay to settle debts with their traffickers.

“Many of my friends told me that they received death threats — they would kill their father, their mother — if they didn’t want to pay or work,” the former worker said.

A federal investigation is ongoing. Trillium has not been charged with wrongdoing and has denied any knowledge of trafficked teens working at their plants. 

According to Martina Vandenberg, the president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, the number of federal civil labor trafficking cases has far outnumbered civil sex trafficking cases, illustrating that more cases exist than those criminal prosecutors are willing to address. In the past 10 years, she said, there have been 235 civil labor trafficking cases compared to 20 civil sex trafficking cases.

“If you look at the prosecutions for human trafficking, you could be, I think mistakenly, given the impression that labor trafficking is a small piece of the action,” she said.

Some federally-sponsored studies have attempted to track the scope of labor trafficking in specific populations. In one 2012 study, Sheldon Zhang, the chair of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, found that about 28 percent of undocumented Spanish-speaking migrants in San Diego County had experienced labor trafficking. He said that the range of conditions ripe for labor exploitation suggests that trafficking occurs more often than reported.

Migrant workers, Zhang said, “occupy more labor sectors where such exploitation can occur, like the construction business, janitorial services, landscaping … It would be difficult to believe that the trafficking is rarely happening in that sector, and yet what you mostly hear about is sex trafficking.”

Some believe the crime is getting harder to track. The emphasis on sex trafficking prosecutions predates the Trump administration, and Denise Brennan, the chair of the anthropology department at Georgetown University, said that deportations under Obama and Trump have inhibited victims from reporting abuse.

“Our anti-trafficking regime from day one has been undone by our deportation regime,” she said. “This is why there are very low numbers on trafficked individuals who self-report. People who are in a situation of trafficking may know that they are in a situation that is awful and can’t be legal but they don’t know that there are protections for them.”

Others point out that prosecutors often face a higher bar when it comes to winning a labor trafficking case. Prosecutors can bring child sex trafficking cases without having to prove force, fraud or coercion while child labor trafficking cases must meet that standard. Colleen Owens, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, noted that it’s not typical for law enforcement to police workplaces, and officials often confuse labor trafficking with labor exploitation. Exploitation could involve employers underpaying and overworking their workers without the trafficking elements of force, fraud or coercion.

It shouldn’t be taken for granted that because trafficking exists as a crime that places are actively looking for it,” said Owens. “It’s the type of crime that requires an active investigative style.”

Few counties have embraced that type of approach, but California’s Alameda County has tried to counter the perception that prosecutors haven’t made labor trafficking a priority. District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has worked to build relationships with community organizations that may act as intermediaries between investigators and trafficking victims. Her office, which formed a labor trafficking task force, has prosecuted close to 20 labor trafficking cases since 2015.

She said that the public doesn’t understand the pervasiveness of labor exploitation and that a lot of it — like worker exploitation at a nail salon — “is hidden in plain sight.” This, combined with the public’s sympathy for sex trafficking victims, could explain why sex trafficking prosecutions are far more common, she said.

“When you’re talking about a child and you’re talking about someone who is put on the street, put on the internet, sold for sex, that really brings up a lot of emotion in people,” she said. “If police, the community or prosecutors are motivated to respond to that emotion, there’s more likelihood that those cases will get brought into court.”

Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly said that in 2014, law enforcement raided Trillium Farms in Ohio. Authorities raided a trailer park that was home to a trafficking operation allegedly run by a third party contractor hired by Trillium.

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