It’s 2018, and we are still dealing with slavery. Sadly, slavery is very real, but takes on many different forms: such as in the case of labor trafficking.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines labor trafficking as: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery” (22 USC § 7102(9)).

In one of our recent articles, Falling Short, we learned about the shortage of data related to farmworkers. Similarly, we lack exact knowledge of how many people are affected by labor trafficking in the U.S. However, a report conducted by the International Labor Organization Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour stated that human trafficking generates a total profit of 150 billion dollars every year: nine billion of that from labor trafficking among agricultural workers.

4-11-18 Labor Trafficking MF (2).png
Photo: The Advocates for Human Rights via,”Rebuilding Lives and Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking” theadvocatespost, August 7, 2017.

From the limited data collected, there are between 17,500 and 60,000 people trafficked into the U.S. and hundreds of thousands more trafficked within our borders every year. Unfortunately the majority of these cases pass undetected.

An article by CNN highlights how traffickers employ their tactics to engage potential victims. Victims often hear about a job opportunity from someone they know in their home country. They then meet with a recruiter, often from an employment agency, seeking workers for U.S. employers. Once the pitch is made, the recruiter may then pressure victims to quickly sign contracts they don’t understand and pay a high recruitment fee. In order to afford the fee, victims often sell their family properties, mortgage their lands or take out high-interest loans, ensnaring them in debt that they must work to pay off.

Many victims fall into false promises of a better life and freedom in U.S. Unfortunately, many encounter the opposite of what was promised and are forced into servitude and threatened by their employers so that they’re unable to leave. Lack of knowledge, and the fear related to immigration status are the top causes for not reporting abuse.


The organization Human Trafficking Search shared Pedro’s story:

“Pedro, was a teacher in Peru when he was told he could make $1,300 a month as a sheepherder in the U.S. He jumped at the chance to better provide for his wife and child. He paid more than $6,000 in recruitment and visa fees, arriving in Colorado on an H-2A visa in spring 2009.  He then learned that he would be working 11-14 hour days, seven days a week, for only $750 a month. His employer took his passport, social security card, and other documents. On the ranch, he was housed in a small sheep wagon with holes, and a broken door with no bathroom or refrigerator. Though his employer was supposed to provide him with food every weekend, he would often not show up. When he protested, the rancher threatened to send him back to Peru. Eventually, Pedro was sent to herd sheep in the mountains. He lived in a tent and became ill. Though $27 per month was deducted from his pay for health insurance, the rancher refused to take him to the doctor. In August, he fled and found a legal services attorney, who was able to help him reclaim his documents and some of his stolen wages.”

More labor trafficking stories like Pedro’s can be found here:


Victims of labor trafficking are commonly found among U.S. migrant and seasonal farmworkers: including men, women, whole families, or children as young as five or six who work in the fields. The victims of this type of trafficking often include undocumented immigrants and foreign nationals with H-2A work visas. Most trafficking victims are from Latin America (31%), Southeastern Asia (26%), and Southern Asia (1%).  According to the International Labour Organization, around nine billion dollars are generated from agricultural forced labor each year.

Labor trafficking perpetrators usually commit the crime with a certain demographic group. The victims are usually selected for their increased vulnerability.

4-11-18 Labor Trafficking MF (1)
Photo: Labour Exploitation, “Vulnerability to human trafficking for labour exploitation”


Unfortunately, uncertain immigration status creates vulnerability, and can be used to employers’ advantage as a tool to exploit agricultural workers. A vast number of agricultural workers are undocumented, and they frequently face threats of arrest and deportation: even workers who have the legal right to work in the U.S. Farmworkers holding H-2A temporary work visas are prohibited from working for an employer other than the one who requested their visa, leaving the worker without options and vulnerable to abuse by this employer and crew leaders.


What are the health consequences of labor trafficking?

Living and surviving labor trafficking has health consequences. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) points out the following health risks:

  • Physical abuse causing headaches, hearing loss, cardiovascular/respiratory problems, and limb amputation. Often chronic back, visual and respiratory problems from working in agriculture, construction or manufacturing under dangerous conditions.
  • Dehumanizing conditions result in psychological distress like helplessness, shame and humiliation, shock, denial and disbelief, disorientation, and anxiety disorders.
  • Traumatic Bonding or “Stockholm Syndrome,” which is characterized by cognitive distortions where reciprocal positive feelings develop between captors and their hostages.
  • Malnourishment – especially among children – to the point of stunting or wasting, display dental maladies, and future reproductive problems.


The organization Friends of Farmworkers share with us some ideas of what organizations are doing to help the victims directly.

  • Recovering unpaid wages or damages owed to victims
  • Connecting victims with other service providers
  • Assisting eligible individuals and their families obtain permanent lawful immigration status as applicable


Labor trafficking is happening in front of us unnoticed, and our government policies are not effective enough in preventing this horrific situation. Any form of human trafficking is unacceptable, but unfortunately the government tends to focus resources on the sex trade at the disadvantage of victims trapped in other trafficking operations such as in farm labor. Education and awareness are key to preventing labor trafficking; an effective international prevention campaign for every population sector will likely help reduce the number of victims suffering labor trafficking in all workforces.