Domestic Servitude, an Especially Hidden Form of Labor Trafficking

Minnesota woman is facing charges of labor trafficking, false imprisonment, and assault after her children’s nanny was found wandering outside at night with bruises all over her face and body. The 58-year-old woman spoke only Chinese, and told police through a translator that her employer, 35-year-old Lili Huang, had beaten, starved, and threatened to kill her.

The nanny alleged that Huang sadistically abused her for several months. Although Huang’s attorneys deny the accusations, investigators discovered that the nanny had had multiple broken ribs and a broken sternum when she fled. She reportedly weighed 88 pounds when police found her.

similar case arose in 2007, when an affluent New York couple coerced two victims from Indonesia into working as domestic servants in their Long Island mansion. The victims suffered years of horrific physical and mental abuse, received no pay, and, notably, interacted with several bystanders during their captivity.

In 2010, a Georgia resident induced two young women to come to the United States from Nigeria to care for her child, and then used violence and threats to force them to work long hours without pay or adequate food.

Labor trafficking—which takes multiple forms including domestic servitude, forced labor in agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, and forced labor in the adult entertainment industry—exists throughout the United States, and persists with relative impunity due to underreporting, lack of investigation by law enforcement, and lack of awareness among the general public.

State and local authorities should be trained to spot labor trafficking, and equipped with the resources they need to prosecute it. Global statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate that 68 percent of human trafficking victims worldwide are exploited for labor in the private economy. But there are still far more investigations, prosecutions, and convictions involving sex trafficking than labor trafficking, both in the United States and abroad.

Between 2005 and 2014, federal prosecutors filed 173 labor trafficking cases, and 295 sex trafficking cases. Data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center also show that sex trafficking cases are reported much more frequently than labor trafficking cases.

Domestic servitude can be especially difficult to detect, as traffickers frequently use calculated tactics to keep victims isolated and intimidated. In both the 2007 case, U.S. v. Sabhnani, and the 2010 case, U.S. v. Bello, the perpetrators confiscated their victims’ passports and identification, restricted their movements to leave no possibility of escape, and threatened to harm the victims’ families back home if they did not submit to their employers.

Although trafficking victims are entitled to immigration relief and legal protections under U.S. law, they are taught to fear law enforcement and often have no conception of their rights or of where to go for help. When the Minnesota nanny was found by police in July, she told them she was looking for an airport so that she could finally return home to China.

There is no single profile for a trafficker or for a trafficking victim. The crime of human trafficking can be committed by labor recruiters who target vulnerable men, women, and children looking for opportunity; business owners who knowingly underpay employees and force them to work in unsafe conditions; or individuals keeping domestic slaves in their homes. Where work is unregulated, seasonal, or transient, and workers are considered replaceable and “unskilled,” there is a high likelihood that they can be exploited for cheap labor.

By spotting and reporting the warning signs—workers not being in control of their own money or documentation, workers appearing to be abused or unsafe, the employment of children, and other indicators—any member of any community can play a critical role in combating human trafficking in the United States.


Published on August 2, 2016


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