“When he found out that I could braid hair he used me as a maid at one of his girlfriend's shops when I was pregnant. I braided hair while he collected the money.”
– Victim of trafficking.
Victims of trafficking may be found in any industry with a demand for cheap labor and a lack of rigorous monitoring. Victims are forced to work against their will in exploitative conditions for little or no pay. They can be found in forestry, landscaping, construction, carnivals, tourism and entertainment, elder-care facilities, gas stations, nail salons, hair braiding salons, and other small businesses.
While working as a nail technician, a woman in her early forties from China disclosed to a customer that she is rarely paid for her work and that she had to turn over her tips to the nail salon owners. She and the other nail technicians all lived in the home of the owners of the salon. The owners drove the workers to the salon every day to work, and the workers could not leave the house to go anywhere except to work. The nail technician wanted to leave her job but could not.*
Several young adults came to the U.S. from various countries in Central America and Africa on temporary work visas. The young adults expected to have good working and living conditions, and to have free time on weekends to travel and see the U.S. However, they found themselves at jobs in traveling carnivals with unsanitary and dangerous conditions. They did not always have access to adequate food and water, and they were expected to work extremely long hours outside in the heat without breaks. The young adults were told that if they tried to quit or report the working conditions, they would be breaking their contracts and would incur a several thousand dollar penalty and be deported.*
*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
When does it become trafficking?
Labor exploitation rises to the level of labor trafficking when the victim is made to believe, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion that he or she cannot quit and has no other choice but to continue to work. Common means of control include:
Force – Physical and/or sexual abuse; isolation or confinement to the place of work, labor camp or apartment supplied by the trafficker; monitoring of movement and communication.
Fraud – Misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, wages, and immigration benefits of the job; non-payment, underpayment or confiscation of wages; 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 – Verbal abuse; threats of harm to the victim or the victim’s family members; threats of deportation or police involvement; isolation; exploitation of a foreign national worker’s unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US; unreasonable deductions and fees for visas, transportation, rent, food, tools, and/or uniforms to create debt.
*The above list is not comprehensive or cumulative. One element of force, fraud or coercion may be present, or many.
Recruitment Debt – Some immigrants working in the hospitality industry hold employment-based visas such as the J-1 or H2-B. In order to obtain these or other visas, workers sometimes pay between $1,000 and $20,000 in legal and illegal feels to a recruiter, visa sponsor, or employer. Oftentimes, workers have to borrow money at high interest rates or mortgage their family’s home, to pay the fee. This debt, coupled with the fact that workers with J-1 or H-2B visas are restricted to certain employers to maintain their immigration status, leave workers vulnerable to exploitation.
- J-1 visa – is designated for exchange visitors on temporary work and travel programs. Each J-1 visa holder has a sponsor as well as an employer, which may be separate entities. Visa holders are able to change employers only after clearing it with their sponsor – otherwise they are in violation of their visa and subject to deportation.
- H-2B visa – is designated for temporary workers in unskilled industries, excluding agriculture which uses the H-2A visa. H-2B visa holders are tied to a single employer. If they wish to leave an abusive situation, they become undocumented and risk deportation.
Immigration Status – Labor trafficking victims may be US citizens or immigrants. However, immigrants – whether documented or not – can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with their legal rights in the US, and/or the lack of a local support network. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to threats of deportation and are unlikely to seek help from the police.