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The hidden world of labor trafficking

U.S. Visa

When it comes to human traf­ficking, we often hear about vic­tims being kid­napped or vio­lently taken from their homes. But what about people who are forced into labor in the U.S.?

In a new study released Tuesday and titled “Hidden in Plain Sight,” researchers from North­eastern Uni­ver­sity in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Washington-​​based Urban Insti­tute exam­ined the some­what hidden net­works of labor traf­ficking in the United States. They found that 71 per­cent of labor traf­ficking vic­tims entered the country on a legal tem­po­rary visa, only to find out that the employ­ment offices they’d worked with in their home country were fraud­u­lent, according to co-​​author Amy Far­rell, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of crim­i­nology and crim­inal jus­tice at Northeastern.

The study is the largest to date to examine forced labor pat­terns in the U.S. Researchers at North­eastern and the Urban Insti­tute were tasked with studying the orga­ni­za­tion, oper­a­tion, and vic­tim­iza­tion of labor traf­ficking in America. In addi­tion to Far­rell, the co-​​authors from North­eastern were Jack McDe­vitt, asso­ciate dean of the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties; Katherine Bright, research assis­tant at the Insti­tute on Race and Jus­tice; Rebecca Pfeffer, a former doc­toral stu­dent in the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice; and Ryan Heit­smith, an under­grad­uate stu­dent in the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Justice.

The researchers exam­ined closed victim case files from four cities and inter­viewed labor traf­ficking vic­tims, law enforce­ment offi­cials, and legal advo­cates. Labor traf­ficking vic­tims were vic­tim­ized across a variety of work venues. The most common venues of exploita­tion in this study were agri­cul­ture, hos­pi­tality, domestic ser­vice in pri­vate res­i­dences, con­struc­tion, and restaurants.

Con­trol over a worker’s immi­gra­tion status was a pow­erful tool used by traf­fickers to keep vic­tims in sit­u­a­tions of forced labor/​labor traf­ficking, the researchers found. Vic­tims are often recruited in their home country by people working on behalf of third– or even fourth-​​party employ­ment agen­cies and who promise good jobs in the U.S. Workers are coerced or phys­i­cally forced into agreeing to these jobs, and are either given a legal visa to travel, or smug­gled into the United States.

Once in the U.S., many vic­tims labor in plain sight, in indus­tries such as con­struc­tion, domestic ser­vice, and hos­pi­tality. In order to keep workers in forced labor, the study found that per­pe­tra­tors use phys­ical and psy­cho­log­ical abuse, wage theft, extor­tion and threats of vio­lence against the workers or their families.

People often think of labor traf­ficking sit­u­a­tions as merely ‘bad jobs,’” said Far­rell, whose own research has focused largely on how America’s crim­inal jus­tice system responds to cases of human traf­ficking. “We found labor traf­ficking vic­tims expe­ri­enced serious and often long-​​term harms including phys­ical injuries, and psy­cho­log­ical and emo­tional prob­lems in response to trauma, depres­sion and fear. Vic­tims often felt dehu­man­ized by their exploita­tion and lost hope when their efforts to seek help and draw atten­tion to their abuses went unrecognized.”


  • 61 percent of the victims had never met their traffickers before being introduced to them via friends or family members. In 30 percent of cases, the person who ensnared the victim was actually part of his or her social circle. 
  • Approximately 54 percent of the cases showed that coercion was used to recruit victims, and 48 percent showed that fees were paid. These fees are often cripplingly high—$6,150 on average. 
  • Roughly 69 percent of victims in the study were unauthorized residents by the time they escaped and received help from services organizations.

In the study, the researchers also found that a gen­eral lack of aware­ness of the issue led to law enforce­ment offi­cials not pri­or­i­tizing labor traf­ficking cases, leaving many vic­tims to escape on their own. Once vic­tims escaped, the research found that many lived for months or years before being con­nected to ser­vice providers who could help them due to a lack of aware­ness or out­reach. Vic­tims strug­gled to secure work and often found them­selves back in low-​​wage jobs where they faced the pos­si­bility of fur­ther exploitation.

The report pro­vides policy and prac­tice rec­om­men­da­tions to combat the problem of forced labor that con­tinues to occur in the United States. These rec­om­men­da­tions include amending immi­gra­tion and labor laws to reflect the ongoing issue of forced labor and increasing training for law enforce­ment offi­cials at all levels to ensure that cases are prop­erly iden­ti­fied and pros­e­cuted. Height­ening aware­ness of labor traf­ficking is crit­ical, the researchers said.


-By John O’Neill

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