Labor Trafficking in the Restaurant Industry

“These defendants allegedly trafficked in human beings, making money off the backs of illegal immigrants and treating them like chattel.”

– Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara regarding a labor trafficking ring.


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Cases of human trafficking in restaurants have been investigated in multiple states, including FL, TX, MA, NY, WI and MN.

Victims of human trafficking in the restaurant and food service industry are forced to work as waiters, bussers, kitchen staff, or even cooks/chefs with little or no pay.  They may experience erratic working hours or overwork, with little time off to seek help.  Employees in restaurant and food service industries may be U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents, undocumented immigrants, or holders of a temporary work visa.

An employee at a Polish community center learned about a potential labor trafficking situation at a Chinese restaurant from a woman who had recently left the situation.  The woman was recruited from Poland to come to the U.S. and work at the restaurant.  The woman told the community center employee that she and the other workers had to work 12-14 hours every day for very little pay.  They all lived together in a house near the restaurant that was monitored with security cameras, and the workers could only leave the house to go to work.  The owner of the restaurant frequently would yell at the workers for not working quickly enough.*

*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.  Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

When does it become trafficking?

A job in a restaurant can become human trafficking when the employer or labor recruiter uses force, fraud and/or coercion to intimidate the worker and to make the worker believe that he or she has no other choice but to continue working.  Control is increased in situations where the workers live in employer-provided housing or in the restaurant itself.  In some instances, investigators have uncovered bars and cantinas that not only force female victims of trafficking to work, but also force them to provide commercial sex.  Common means of control include:

Force – Restrictions on the worker’s ability to leave the restaurant or housing; intentionally exhausting work hours; physical or sexual abuse; constant surveillance.

Fraud – Misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, wages, and immigration benefits of the job; altered or bogus contracts; 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 – Exploitation of a foreign national restaurant worker’s unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US; use of security equipment to monitor workers’ whereabouts; threats of deportation or other harm to the victim or the victim’s family; verbal and psychological abuse; 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

Low industry standards for wages and safety – Restaurant workers are vulnerable to exploitation due to the work standards in certain parts of the restaurant industry and lack of enforcement of labor and safety regulations.  Workers in the restaurant industry are paid low wages and advocacy groups report that wage theft is a common occurrence.  Kitchen staff, dishwashers, and cooks may work more than 70 hours per week, and typically do not receive paid vacation or sick leave.  Traffickers exploit the lack of worker protections by requiring more work from workers for less pay, never permitting them a day off, and not permitting workers to procure jobs elsewhere.

Immigration Status – Over 60% of workers in the restaurant industry were born outside the United States.  Recent immigrants frequently receive less desirable jobs, lower pay, and longer hours with fewer benefits.  Some immigrant workers obtain restaurant jobs through formal or informal recruiting networks, and may have debt, be frequently transferred, or become reliant on their employer for housing.

Traffickers often use the threat of deportation as well as document confiscation to maintain control of foreign national victims.  Some victims enter the U.S. with a fraudulent visa procured through organized crime or a recruiter, leaving them particularly vulnerable to threats of deportation and unlikely to seek help from the police.  Additionally, traffickers prey on immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US to further manipulate or exploit them.

Statistics Snapshot

  • Cases of human trafficking in restaurants have been investigated in multiple states, including FL, TX, MA, NY, WI and MN and the prevalence of labor trafficking in restaurants has been commonly cited by human trafficking investigators and service providers as an area of concern.
  • In a study of the restaurant industry in several major metropolitan areas by The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, researchers found that nearly 80% of workers did not receive paid vacation days, nearly 90% of workers did not receive paid sick leave.  This report also documents wide racial disparities in the quality of work and wages earned by workers.  For victims of human trafficking forced to work in restaurants, the conditions are frequently more severe.