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Forced Labor in the United States

By July 15, 2021June 6th, 2022One Comment

Landing a job is generally something to be celebrated. For many, it means the beginning of a longed-for dream career, a secure income, or better opportunities. But for the roughly 50,000 people working in forced labor in the United States, it often means a life of secrecy, fear, abuse, and hopelessness.

What is forced labor?

The International Labour Organization defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

In the United States, forced labor is most common in industries that offer low wages, where there is little accountability to U.S. law. Most media coverage in the U.S. about human trafficking focuses on the sex trade, but other common forms of forced labor are found in hotels and hospitality services, agriculture, restaurants, manufacturing, custodial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service. In fact, according to the Polaris Project, experts believe there are more situations of labor trafficking than sex trafficking in the United States.

Traffickers often use physical and emotional abuse, threats, and shame to control their victims. This means people who are already vulnerable are at even greater risk of being trafficked. Those vulnerable populations include those with substance abuse or mental health concerns, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, homeless individuals, those in the child welfare or foster care system, and youth who have run away.

Who is at risk for forced labor in the United States?


A great number of victims of forced labor in the United States are immigrants from other countries. They are vulnerable because they do not speak English or understand the laws or their own rights. They decide to come to the U.S. in hopes of more opportunities and a better life, placing all their trust in their traffickers, only to find themselves stuck in a hopeless and inescapable cycle of coercion. 

Many immigrants trapped in forced labor situations come to the U.S. through a work or student visa program. They are misled about the life and job situation they are coming into, unaware of the intentions of the person they’ve trusted. 

Jayson’s story and Flor’s story are two examples of how forced labor can occur when an immigrant is dependent on a trafficker for their basic needs. Traffickers exploit their victim’s vulnerabilities to create that dependency.

migrants working in a field, representing the types of people who are often victims of forced labor in the United States

Kids in Foster Care

The U.S. foster care system is a particularly lucrative target for human traffickers. Because of the massive size and scope of the national system, it is easy for the needs of individual children to get lost. Human traffickers know and exploit the unique vulnerabilities of children in foster care.

For instance, traffickers know that children in the foster care system are used to being moved without notice, not knowing where they are going or how long they will stay. They also know the children believe that no one will want to care for them unless they are paid. Foster children and young adults typically suffer mental health trauma, little or no family support systems, and low self-esteem. As the statistics show, these types of factors translate easily into falling victim to a human trafficking situation. In fact, the National Foster Youth Institute estimates that 60% of child trafficking victims in the United States have a history in the child welfare system.

Domestic Workers

Domestic workers are another segment of the population particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking. Most domestic workers are women, often minorities or immigrants, and the work happens in private homes where there is little or no accountability. There are no federal legal requirements, standards, or wage regulations for domestic workers. That means there is no way of making sure the domestic workers are treated fairly by their employers.

This was the situation that Natalia found herself in. At just 13, she left her village in Ghana to get an education in the United States, accompanied by family friends. Those family friends quickly trapped her in a life of merciless abuse and degrading household labor. After suffering invisibly, locked in the family’s home, she was finally able to escape and reach a neighbor who called the authorities.

woman ironing clothes as a domestic workers, representing the types of people who are often victims of forced labor in the United States

How is forced labor in the United States being addressed?

Over recent decades, the United States federal government has begun to address the problem of human trafficking. 

In 2000, Congress passed The Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The act authorized the establishment of the State Department’s TIP Office and the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, both founded to assist in the coordination of anti-trafficking efforts. The law has been reauthorized and updated five times, most recently in January 2019 with strong bipartisan support. That year, Congress allocated $250 million toward anti-human trafficking efforts.

The Polaris Project set up the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2007, which has now handled 63,380 situations of human trafficking. According to the Polaris Project 2019 Data Report, labor trafficking accounted for 1,236 of the incidents reported on the hotline, mostly in domestic work, agriculture, and traveling sales crews.

There have been a variety of approaches to addressing the problem of forced labor from a congressional level (see the complete list of U.S. laws on human trafficking). But the reality is that forced labor is a symptom of more complex societal issues. These issues include a need for immigration reform, lack of visa regulations, racial and gender discrimination, and other forms of institutionalized oppression.

young woman sitting on a couch looking determined, representing the average people who can make an impact on forced labor in the United States

What can we do?

While forced labor may be the result of complex societal issues, there are some things we can do to fight it on an individual level.

1. Be aware of the signs.

When you are aware of what to look for, you’ll notice when something seems off. When you’re in public, pay attention to the people around you. Listen to your gut instincts. Ask questions when something seems wrong. 

The Polaris Project has created a document to help you recognize and identify when a situation qualifies as human trafficking. You can also familiarize yourself with the facts through our TraffickWatch website experience.

2. Be conscientious consumers.

As consumers, we can be aware of the products we buy and how they are produced. The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 155 goods from 77 countries made by forced and child labor. Familiarize yourself with this list and be intentional about how and where you spend your money. 

Pay attention to company practices. Ask questions about production systems. Only buy products where you can be confident that their production did not exploit another person. If you need to start small, focus on purchasing some of the most common slave made goods (such as coffee and chocolate) from fair trade vendors. We’ve put together a list of businesses that fight human trafficking.

3. Exercise your right to vote.

We often have the ability to speak into issues at the ballot box. Educate yourself on the ballot initiatives that affect opportunities for traffickers to thrive. Vote people into office who prioritize the issue of human trafficking. Champion legislative actions that defend the vulnerable and prosecute those who take advantage of them. You can learn about current policy and legislation issues from Polaris.

4. Support organizations fighting human trafficking on the front lines.

Combating human trafficking effectively requires the commitment of experts with front-line knowledge of the complexities of trafficking prevention and intervention. The Exodus Road has spent nine years partnering with law enforcement, developing policies informed by on-the-ground experience. You can give today to be a part of the fight against trafficking, in the U.S. and around the world.