"I was an easy target for my trafficker. I was a desperate mother looking for a way to provide for my three children. I was told that I would have a good job with good pay and a place where to live. When I got here I was locked in the factory and forced to work 17 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week."
- Flor Molina, Survivor of forced labor
Labor trafficking in manufacturing has been known to occur in the garment industry and in food processing plants in the United States. Victims, both men and women, have been forced to work 10-12 hour days, 6-7 days per week with little or no break time. People may be trafficked into garment industry jobs such as sewing, assembling, pressing, or packing apparel. Others may be forced to work in food processing operations that include slaughtering, preserving, canning and packing goods for distribution. Immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, are often recruited into these industries. Some documented immigrants include H-2B visa holders who arrive in the U.S. to perform non-agricultural labor or temporary services.
Several workers paid large fees to labor recruiters who brought them to the U.S. with falsified documents. When the workers arrived in the U.S., they learned that their debts had increased and that they had to work at a canning plant in a small, rural town in Kansas to pay the debt. The recruiters required that the workers live in overcrowded conditions in housing that they provided. Because of its isolated location the workers had to rely on the recruiters for food and basic supplies. The recruiters took the majority of the workers’ paychecks, claiming that the money went to their debt, housing and food.
*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
When does it become trafficking?
Factory/production work becomes trafficking when the employer uses force, fraud and/or coercion to maintain control over the worker and to cause the worker to believe that he or she has no other choice but to continue to work. Common methods of control include:
Force – Physical confinement in locked factories or plants; placement in specific production line tasks that the worker cannot abandon; physical or sexual abuse; constant surveillance.
Fraud – Misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, wages, and immigration benefits of the job; payment schemes that compensate worker by units of production rather than hourly wage and thus grossly underpay workers; manufacturing plants facing complaints may close down and relocate elsewhere without paying workers for their labor; altered or bogus contracts; visa fraud e.g. allowing a legitimate visa to expire or failing to provide a promised visa, thereby increasing the worker’s vulnerability to threats of deportation and limiting his or her alternative job options.
Coercion – Threats of deportation; threats of dismissal if workers attempt to unionize or address working conditions (wages and hour violations, workplace safety, discrimination/harassment); exploitation of a foreign national’s unfamiliarity with local labor laws or workers’ rights; confiscation of passports and visas; debt manipulation.
*The above list is not comprehensive or cumulative. One element of force, fraud or coercion may be present, or many.
Vulnerabilities / Enabling Factors
Low Profit Margins – Domestic manufacturing is driven by competition from offshore industries where labor is outsourced, particularly in garment and apparel manufacturing. As a result, factory workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking when working in high production, low profit operations where there is a demand for cheap or free labor.
Tiered Production System – Food and garment production are decentralized, whereby retailers/buyers purchase goods from manufacturing companies that in turn employ various subcontractors to prepare or produce those goods. Subcontractors who arrange the actual labor are responsible for paying and supervising workers, but may fall outside the scope of retailer-manufacturer agreements governing overtime, workplace safety, discrimination/harassment, and the right to organize and bargain collectively. This structure creates an unregulated work environment whereby trafficking victims are often exploited by their subcontracting supervisors or employers.
Immigration Status – Traffickers often use threats of deportation and document confiscation to maintain control over foreign national workers in the production industry. H-2B workers, (temporary immigrant workers) are particularly vulnerable because their legal status in the United States is tied to their employment, and because they often have extended families in their home countries who depend on their wages. Traffickers impose hefty debts to immigrant workers for job recruitment fees, transportation costs and visa processing. Additionally, traffickers prey on immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the U.S. to further manipulate or exploit them.
Relevant Press Releases
U.S. v. Kil Soo Lee - Kil Soo Lee, owner of the Daewoosa garment factory in American Samoa, was convicted on numerous federal charges, including involuntary servitude, extortion and money laundering. The defendant, charged in 2001 in U.S. District Court in Hawaii, illegally confined and used as forced labor over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers.
From March 1999 through November 2000, Lee and his managers conspired to use arrests, deportations, food deprivation and beatings to force workers to operate the Daewoosa factory. The workers were recruited from China and from state-owned labor export companies in Vietnam. Evidence presented at trial revealed that recruits paid fees of approximately $5,000 to $8,000 to gain employment at the Daewoosa factory and risked retaliation if deported.
David, et al. v. Signal International LLC - A current class action lawsuit has been brought on behalf of over 500 guestworkers from India workers who were trafficked into the U.S. through the H-2B guestworker program with dishonest assurances of becoming lawful permanent U.S. residents and subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices, and threats of serious harm upon their arrival.
The complaint alleges that recruiting agents hired by the marine industry company, Signal International, held the workers’ documents, coerced them into paying extraordinary fees for recruitment, immigration processing and travel, and threatened the workers with serious legal and physical harm if they did not work under the Signal-restricted guestworker visa. The complaint also alleges that once in the U.S., the men were required to live in Signal's guarded, overcrowded labor camps, subjected to psychological abuse and defrauded out of adequate payment for their work.