Labor Trafficking in the U.S. and the Need for Better After-Care

By Komal Patel

While the recent discovery of how NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi was built with forced labor has caused much negative attention to be directed towards NYU and the United Arab Emirates, what may be overlooked is that labor trafficking is just as alive and well here in the United States.

With media-driven anti-trafficking campaigns largely focused on sex workers and child labor abroad, one group is becoming increasingly marginalized—the labor trafficked migrant workers.

Human trafficking, as defined by the United Nations, is the act of recruiting, transporting, or retaining persons through means such as force, coercion, threats, or deception, for exploitative purposes. Such exploitation ranges from sex work to organ removal to forced labor.

These abuses don’t only happen in impoverished or totalitarian countries abroad. According to D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization Polaris, in 2013 alone, their hotline received 929 reports of labor trafficking in the United States.

Most instances of labor trafficking happen in domestic households, farms, and factories, according to Denise Brennan, professor of anthropology at Georgetown University and author of Life Interrupted: Forced Labor in the United States.  

In her book, Brennan employs ethnographic research and features a number of activists and formerly trafficked persons who she interviewed. One such person is Flo, a recipient of the T visa and a domestic worker who came to the United States from Africa.

Flo worked as a domestic servant in a diplomat’s home. Flo had agreed to work for a salary of $250, because back home this was considered a good salary. However, when she came to understand what the standard of living was like in the United States, she realized she was being exploited.

Flo was forced to work 24 hours each day of the week. As Flo attempted to negotiate her pay and duties, her employers became harsher. They told her she was a slave and seized her passport. When Flo tried to call the police and complain about her wages, she was dismissed because she had agreed to work for that rate.

Flo recounts how she was afraid to leave because her employer told her that Africans were hated in America, and Flo believed her because she was a diplomat. However, with the help of a friend from church, Flo felt braver and was eventually able to escape. The trauma from her trafficked situation was far from over, though. Afterwards, she felt a constant sense of paranoia even when doing things as mundane as shopping.

Flo’s escape may have been impossible without her friend’s help, but it is uncommon for trafficked persons to have such support. Most victims of forced labor are also migrant workers who come to the United States alone and are unable to form connections due to their oppressive supervisors.

“Formerly trafficked persons have no network,” said Brennan. “Abusers limit employees from establishing connections with people, and this prevents them from reaching out and exiting a trafficked situation.”

Kamela, a formerly trafficked person, was also isolated while in her trafficking situation. However, she was able to escape and turned to Safe Horizon, an NGO in New York City dedicated to assisting women and children who are subjected to violence. According to a case study from Safe Horizon, Kamela ran away from an abusive husband in order to better protect herself and her son. Though it meant leaving her son, Kamela took a job working as a domestic servant in a private household.

When it came time for Kamela to get her first paycheck, she received nothing. The family she worked for refused to pay her, stole her identification documents, and kept her isolated from the rest of the household staff.

After about six months of forced laboring for this household, Kamela was forced to go work for a different family in the United States. There, she faced the same abuses. The family seized her identification documents and withheld her wages though she worked as a housekeeper and nanny. Even here, she was forced to live in the house with the family in isolation, never even getting to contact her son.

After ten years of working as a trafficked laborer in the United States, Kamela managed to escape to New York City and contacted Safe Horizon. Once there, she was able to secure a visa, find a job, and reunite with her son.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the “T” visa was created to allow victims of trafficking to remain in the United States legally. Social services are also provided to victims, such as grants for case management, health benefits, and cash assistance.

Not all formerly trafficked persons who are lucky enough to escape are able to have an ending like Kamela’s. While the government does offer after-care programs and a special visa that grants formerly trafficked persons legal immigration status, academics and advocates alike find that there are many drawbacks to these programs, especially because of their time constraints.

“Most [survivors] are grateful for the services and benefits they’ve been able to access,” said Alicia Peters, professor of anthropology at the University of New England who studies the U.S. response to human trafficking. “With that being said, however, in talking with service providers, the services available are limited in terms of the amount of time they are available for. They typically stop before the need of trafficking survivors have stopped.”

The services provided, such as housing and money, are considered to be things greatly needed by formerly trafficked persons. However, finding alternative sources of these things can take longer than anticipated.

“Trafficking survivors have really long term needs that don’t necessarily match up with the way funding is structured,” said Peters.

Mary Caparas, manager of the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC) anti-trafficking initiative called “Project Free,” agrees that too often in anti-trafficking activism, the difficulty in attaining these long terms goals are underestimated or not considered.

“Long term interventions can be a lot tougher, and most people don’t realize this,” said Caparas.

Caparas has found that the act of reconstructing lives is extremely arduous and lengthy for the formerly trafficked women and men she works with.

“A lot of our clients just got a T visa, but now the question becomes: what can we do now,” said Caparas, adding that prior to getting T visas, formerly trafficked persons believe that fixing their immigration status is their number one priority. “This is a longer question to address because it’s about rebuilding a life. Rebuilding a life in a new country can be tougher.”

Another issue arises from confidentiality.

“An unintended consequence is that a formerly trafficked person doesn’t meet another formerly trafficked person,” said Brennan. “Without formerly trafficked persons meeting each other, there’s a lot of isolation.”

Organizations such as Safe Horizon and the NYAWC offer support groups for women who have undergone trafficking.

The specific program from the NYAWC “Project Free” initiative providing after-care for formerly trafficked persons is called the “Asian Women’s Empowerment” (AWE) program.


In addition to offering individualized counseling, AWE aims to offer a safe space for survivors to come together and partake in activities such as trauma sensitive yoga, labor rights workshops, and other creative support groups that don’t rely on the typical talk therapy seen at other organization.

For example, in one of the AWE’s creative support group sessions, pictures of animals were hung up on the walls, said Caparas. Members of the group walked around and picked an animal they liked. While nobody was forced to share, said Caparas, those who volunteered explained why they chose the animals they did, and this opened up into conversation about families and more personal matters.

“Not everyone comes from a culture where people feel comfortable talking, especially people in immigrant communities,” said Caparas. “So it’s helpful to just give them a time and space where they can. None of the women are made to feel that they have to share, and it’s a pretty amazing environment to be in.”

While men and women of all races who experienced trafficking are welcome, most the members of the AWE groups are Korean and Chinese immigrant women. Many were trafficked as hotel workers, recruited from other countries, but the group members have a range of experiences. Some even were trafficked as domestic workers in the households of diplomats and ambassadors.

Having support groups in which formerly trafficked persons are able to connect with each other is hugely important for the members of the AWE groups.

“It strengthens their community ties because they start to rely on each other,” said Caparas. “It helps them feel as if they’re not alone and gets them out of an isolated mindset.”

According to Caparas, some women in AWE even turn to religious communities through churches or temples to find a support network. However, this may not be the case if their abuser is from their ethnic community. There can be much isolation for formerly trafficked persons, especially when they share the same ethnic community as their abuser.

“When the abuser is coethnic, the formerly trafficked persons goes out of the way to avoid living in these communities,” said Brennan, adding that these survivors’ desire to avoid ethnic haunts is heightened by the paranoia that comes from trauma. She found through interviews with survivors for her own research that they often got harassed when they ran into their abuser or abusers’ friends.

Even in terms of who gets a T visa can be problematic, argues Brennan, adding that most government officials in charge of giving T visas are typically only looking at cases of domestic abuse and prostitution, and not labor.

“Most of the emphasis is on sex trafficking, and that gives an incomplete portrayal of the trafficking issue,” said Peters, adding that this is because earlier visions of trafficking prompted by the Bush Administration highlighted sex trafficking.

In President Bush’s speech announcing a new anti-trafficking campaign in 2004, sex tourism, sex slaves, and sexually abused women are discussed at length, while labor trafficking is barely mentioned.

Even now, the emphasis on sex trafficking in government anti-trafficking efforts remains. This past April, in a 99-0 vote, the United States Senate passed a bill on human trafficking, but even this bill is aimed at reducing sex trafficking.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 gives law enforcement more authority to investigate offenses involving trafficking, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, transportation for illegal sexual activity, or human smuggling. It also expands the Department of Justice’s authority to intercept communications related to trafficking. The bill focuses heavily on prosecution and criminalization efforts as a means to curb sex trafficking.

While there is a general emphasis on sex trafficking, in fact, it seems that in New York there may be more labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking cases.

According to Caparas, 70 percent of reported cases of trafficking received through the NYAWC 24-hour hotline are related to labor trafficking, while 30 percent are related to sex trafficking.

There are signs that attentions may be shifting. Peters said that the Obama Administration are increasingly recognizing labor trafficking. Nonetheless she adds, “There is still this lingering idea that trafficking equals sex trafficking.”

The focus on sex trafficking can lead to skewed understandings of trafficking in the United States, which affects who is given a T visa. Labor-trafficked people who fit the description of trafficked persons on paper are being overlooked, said Peters. In fact, according to a research report issued by the Urban Institute in 2014 on labor trafficking in the United States, most police officers did not prioritize labor trafficking cases.

“People who have gotten T visas don’t tell full, accurate stories of who is trafficked,” said Brennan. This, in turn, can affect the accuracy of data on who is being trafficked.

Though the International Labor Organization states that nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor, experts say that accurate and exact numbers for instances of trafficking are extremely hard to find.

The reason is not just because of the over-emphasis placed on sex trafficking. Other factors play a role too. For one, there is a lack of uniformity in what anti-trafficking advocates may identify as trafficking because the legal definition is very broad. Another reason is that formerly trafficked persons rarely self-identify.

There are a few different reasons as to why trafficked persons may be less inclined to come forward. For instance, many trafficked persons have been threatened with rape or murder, says Brennan, and workers in farms and households are even more vulnerable because of their isolation. Many don’t realize that there is legal relief.

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“Victims, who are often foreign, don’t really know their rights at all in the civil system,” said Alexandra Levy, an attorney at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.

The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center is a non-profit in Washington D.C. that trains attorneys on litigating cases related to human trafficking cases and then connects these attorneys with needy clients.

“At its core, human trafficking is an economic crime,” said Levy. “What is stolen is labor, and getting lost wages back is important as a matter of both justice and practicality.”

Levy stressed how important it is for formerly trafficked persons to have access to legal counsel. By suing their traffickers through the civil court, victims are able to get damages as compensation for the losses they have suffered.

“Victims need a lot of things, but they definitely need money to live and rebuild their lives,” said Levy. “That’s what they can get on the civil side.”

There is both a lack of awareness about their legal rights on behalf of formerly trafficked persons and a lack of litigation power on the civil side of things, according to Levy.

“It’s a matter of getting more lawyers and getting more victims aware of their rights and getting a lawyer for every victim,” said Levy.

In addition to strengthening legal action and awareness, there are other things to take into consideration in attempting to improve after-care for formerly trafficked persons such as funding policies.

“Listening to voices of survivors needs to be made central to policymaking,” said Peters.

Brennan agrees that anti-trafficking organizations should be paid more attention to.

“The government needs to allocate more money per person to social care providers who oversee formerly trafficked persons’ resettlement,” said Brennan. “The amount of money given to social care providers is insufficient, and some organizations are stretched very thin.”

At NYAWC, Caparas says they are trying to find funding for more scholarships because of the common issue that migrant labor trafficked persons face in not being able to find jobs in the United States matching their skills.

“If someone had a technical or medical training in a different country, they may be stuck taking inventory in a factory,” said Caparas, adding that scholarships would allow formerly trafficked persons to go back to school in the United States.

After fixing immigration statuses, education is one of the things formerly trafficked persons seek out the most, as attested to by the various survivors featured in Brennan’s book.

Two of the biggest needs of formerly trafficked persons as identified by Caparas and based on the requests and feedback of the NYAWC clients are English-language instruction and employment-related advising in areas such as resume building and job hunting.

“It’s hard because a lot of people may not have education or feel as if they can walk into a different industry,” said Caparas, adding that without finding new jobs, trafficking survivors are at risk of being retrafficked.

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Little education can lead to poor job prospects both in the United States and trafficked persons’ home countries, which prompts them to seek jobs internationally, according to the report issued by the Urban Institute.

The report found that only 13 percent of domestic workers and 20 percent of agricultural workers had attended college.

While anti-trafficking efforts must deal with funding politics, the issue of trafficking must deal with a different set of power relations: those related to economics and the labor industry. Many industries, such as the farming industry, have been thriving precisely because of labor abuses, advocates argue.

Just in the past decade, seven farm operations were prosecuted for forced servitude in Florida alone; these cases involved over 1,000 workers, according to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization dedicated to maintaining human rights in the workplace, especially on farms.

In a paper entitled, “Forced Labor in the United States: A Contemporary Problem in Need of a Contemporary Solution” published by the University of Denver, Chrissey Buckley finds that there are high occurrences of forced labor in the agriculture sector due to the lack of regulations and labor standards in that particular industry.

Much of the change needed to combat labor trafficking, especially in industries such as the agriculture sector, seem to involve legislative changes.

The Urban Institute report recommends enacting state laws in order to ensure that companies certify that they are not using trafficked labor and so that there is more transparency within these industries, allowing others to recognize when there is forced labor being used.

Industries that benefit from cheap labor, such as the agricultural industry, are part of the United States’ guestworker program, comprised of the H2A and H2B programs, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. These programs allow employers to import workers for temporary or seasonal work, but the employees are unable to change employers, even if abused or deceived.

Workers under the H2A program have many more legal protections that protect them from exploitation, but the H2B program lacks these protections. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that changes to the H2B program that would improve worker protections have been blocked by employers and members of Congress “seeking to maintain the H-2B program as a source of cheap, unregulated labor.”

“At the heart of this, there is a lack of political will to do right by migrants,” said Brennan. “There are no easy fixes because it’s about protecting certain industries that have profited from grotesque violations and exploitation of workers.”

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