Myth: Human Trafficking Includes Only Sex Trafficking

By Meghan Hampsey

The crime of human trafficking encompasses much more than sex slavery. While efforts to end commercial sex trafficking tend to receive the most media attention, resources, manpower, and government funding, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 68 percent of the estimated 21 million human trafficking victims worldwide are enslaved in labor trafficking in the private economy.

Forced labor slavery is especially prominent in certain industries that require seasonal or temporary work. The ILO estimates that 25 percent of labor trafficking victims work in agriculture, 50 percent work in construction, mining, and utilities, and 24 percent are engaged in domestic servitude.

The 2007 case United States v. Sabhnani brought a great deal of media attention to the issue of domestic servitude, partly due to the disturbing facts of the case. Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani used their family connections in Indonesia to recruit two poor women with promises of paid jobs and housing in the United States. Upon arrival in New York, the Sabhnanis immediately confiscated the victims’ passports and forced them to perform housework for 20 hours a day without pay. Mrs. Sabhnani used humiliation, threats, and sadistic physical abuse to terrify the victims into submission for a combined five years.

Labor trafficking can look markedly different in different sectors, but traffickers use similar tactics across various industries. In the 2008 case David v. Signal International Inc., 590 victims were coerced into working in the construction industrySignal International, a marine fabrication company contracted to rebuild the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, hired almost 600 recruits from India to work in their shipyards. The men were recruited through advertisements in Indian newspapers promising employment-based green cards and a salary of $18 an hour. Instead, the men were given temporary work visas and charged as much as $2000 in fees. They were also forced to pay more than $1000 a month to live in overcrowded “man camps” without proper toilet facilities or showers. They were financially indebted to the traffickers, and like the Sabhnani victims, were fearful of going to law enforcement because they lacked access to their identity documents and were unaware of their rights.

Domestic servitude and forced labor in large-scale construction firms are but two examples of labor trafficking in the United States. From the agricultural industry to the beauty industry, and many other sectors, unscrupulous recruiters and business owners capitalize on victims’ desperation, displacement, and lack of awareness of their rights to exploit foreign workers.

Labor trafficking remains underpublicized and underreported by both victims and bystanders, and misunderstood by police and prosecutors. Forced labor slavery is even frequently confused with wage-and-hour violations. American corporations must also play a critical role in ensuring that their global supply chains are free from labor trafficking by adopting best practices to protect vulnerable workers.

Law enforcement, the private sector, and consumers should be aware of the Department of Labor’s “Dirty Goods” list and the growing body of data on trafficking-prone industries in order to effectively work towards eliminating labor slavery worldwide. To learn more about modern slavery and to view full case studies, check out our interactive webpage, Understanding Modern Slavery.


Published on May 31, 2016


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