Forced labor happens everywhere.  It happens in China.  It happens in the U.S.  It happens in India.  It happens in the U.S.  It happens in the Congo.  It happens in the U.S.  It happens in Russia.  It happens in the U.S.


Did we mention that it happens in the U.S.?


According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, not only does it happen here, it happens right in front of our eyes, in a variety of occupational settings, all across the country.  Forced labor is reported on farms; at carnivals; in beauty parlors; in restaurants; in retail; in landscaping; and more.

Internationally, it is what keeps prices low on many products Americans love, such as laptops, phones, clothing, chocolate, and timber.  That is what typically comes to mind when we hear the term “forced labor.”

Here in the U.S., however, forced labor flies under the radar, because victims themselves may believe that what they’re experiencing is normal.  Also, it can get confusing to observers, because, oftentimes, the victims may be getting paid or may be under the impression that they eventually will be paid.  But when this compensation is unreasonably delayed, applied towards phantom “debts,” or any less than what is mandated by law, then it may fit the legal definition of forced labor.


Forced labor:  is 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. –


The National Human Trafficking Resource Center warns that someone may be a victim of human trafficking if –

  • they experience workplace abuse/restrictions
  • they owe a large debt and are unable to pay it off
  • their documents/ID have been confiscated
  • they were recruited through false promises
  • they’re unpaid or being paid very little


71% of human trafficking victims enter the United States on a valid visa (Urban Institute).


As stated in two of our prior blogs (Today’s Traffic and Slavery Lives On), agriculture is one of the primary industries beset by abuse and violations of labor law.  Of course, most farm owners are NOT out to hurt their workers but rather take care of them to the best of their ability, fulfilling all stipulations of the law.  Unfortunately, there are bad actors in every system, and visa programs for agriculture such as H-2A are especially vulnerable, due to the farmworkers’ transience, economic status, language barriers, and immigration status.  Those challenges will be discussed in next week’s blog.


For now – let’s talk about solutions.


Farmworkers:  Before signing a contract, be wary…

  • If the terms seem too good to be true. Ask around and check things out before signing.
  • If you are being asked to pay any pre-recruitment costs, such as background checks or travel to the worksite.  At least for H-2A workers, such requirements are unlawful.
  • If you are pressured to put up significant collateral as part of the contract. No one should ever have to mortgage their house to afford an H-2A job.  The job is FREE.
  • Even if you’re being recruited at an American embassy or consulate.  The majority of human trafficking victims entered the U.S. on a valid visa, but their recruiters made false promises and acted in bad faith.


Read your contract carefully.  If anything raises a concern, ask pointed questions and do research on your potential employer.  Don’t sign anything too hastily.


Once you start work, here are some more things to look out for:

  • If the pay is less than promised and the terms of your contract are not being upheld;
  • If things like insurance, tools, or other hazy costs are being regularly deducted from your paycheck, and yet you never benefit from those things;
  • If your documents like your I.D., visa, etc., are being held by your employer;
  • If you experience workplace intimidation, violence, and/or discrimination;
  • If you get hurt and your employer discourages you from visiting the doctor;
  • If your movements are restricted and you hardly get any time off.


Remember, all laborers have rights and are protected by the law, regardless of immigration status.  If you feel like you are being exploited, report any violations by calling 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).


If you’re part of the general public, here are our recommendations for you:

  • Awareness is HUGE. When ordinary citizens keep their eyes and ears open, lives can be saved.  Save the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline in your phone: 1-888-373-7888.  Then, if you ever see signs of forced labor or sex trafficking, you can report the incident right away and get the victim some help – just as many people have already done.


  • Support local laws whose goal is to eliminate forced labor from the (oftentimes very complicated) global supply chain. We featured one of those laws on our blog in March, penned by Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition.  Unfortunately, that bill stalled in the Washington State Senate because of outcry from area business owners who were “offended” at the suggestion that human trafficking could be occurring in their fields or warehouses, with or without their knowledge.


  • Don’t give your business to anyone whom you suspect of violating the law. Better yet, look for labels on food and other products that certify that they are free of child and other forced labor – such as Goodweave, EFI, or CIW’s Fair Food label.



Stay tuned for Part II, when we’ll talk more about visa programs and how to protect farmworkers from further exploitation.