A Four Year Analysis Of Labor Trafficking Drills Down on Cases Prosecuted

Oct 7, 2019 | by Rachel

The scope of labor trafficking has always been difficult to determine.  Victims are often hesitant to come forward about labor abuses, particularly if they were smuggled into the country or if their visa has expired. Often, helping professionals and first responders know less about labor trafficking and are less inclined to identify and respond as a result. This difficulty and the covert nature of the crime make it hard to come up with concrete and reliable statistics. Labor trafficking related prosecutions are few and far between, often trumped by sex trafficking investigations where law enforcement can go into a venue where they think illicit activities are taking place.

In an effort to highlight the current research that is being conducted, this blog will take a look at a recent study published in the Journal of Human Trafficking entitled “A Four-Year analysis of Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States; Exploring Characteristics and Labor Trafficking Patterns” authored by Kristen Bracy, Bandak Lul and Dominque Roe-Sepowitz.

Through a structured online search of media reports identifying national cases that resulted in prosecutions and a targeted review of electronically filed court documents and government reports, the study found that there were 125 people arrested for labor trafficking as a part of 47 labor trafficking cases prosecuted in the United States from 2013 to 2016. While the majority of these cases involved only labor trafficking, 26% of them involved both sex and labor trafficking.

The study found that of the individuals arrested, 62% of the traffickers were male, and 36% were female. The age range of the traffickers was between 20 and 70 years old at the time of the arrest, with the average age of female traffickers (41 years of age) being slightly younger than their male counterparts (43 years of age). The majority (69%) of the traffickers were US citizens, and only 8% of the traffickers were in the country without the proper documentation. Most importantly, of the 47 separate cases, 31 included a criminal organization and an average of eight victims associated with the trafficking incident. As hypothesized through anecdotal data locally, this highlights that cases are more likely to go through investigation and prosecution if there are more victims and if a criminal network is involved. Also important: Twenty nine of the cases were indicted for both sex and labor trafficking, which reiterates that this nexus often serves as priority in investigations.

As the study was using information pulled from various electronic documents, the information on the victims is not comprehensive. This number is relatively low considering what we know about service provision for labor trafficking survivors nationally. A national network of anti-trafficking organizations called the Freedom Network breaks down their demographics of people served annually – in 2018, 30% of their 2,000 survivors served were labor trafficking survivors, which amounts to 600 survivors. This study points to the clear discrepancy between what goes to prosecution, and therefore allows for us to analyze the gaps still inherent to the system. It is also important to note that criminal justice is not always the type of justice that survivors are looking for - they may be accessing justice in other avenues instead. It does, however, start to give us an outline of which cases are more often prosecuted and  and the demographics of the victims within those cases. There were 120 victims identified through the study, and 79% of them were migrant (foreign-born) workers and 21% were U.S – born workers. The majority of the victims were female and most of the cases only involved adult victims.

While we know transportation does not have to be present for an exploitative situation to be trafficking, this study found that 92% of the cases the victims did cross national borders, and 73.6 % of them were brought to the U.S. as household/domestic workers. The migrant victims from this study were found to be from 16 different countries, with 35% originating from Mexico/Central America and 29.6% originating from Southeast Asia.

The traffickers used a variety of tools (staffing agencies, online job advertisements, technology, face to face recruitment and local newspapers) and promises of money and wealth to recruit victims. Twenty seven percent used a bait and switch tactic, tricking victims into thinking they would be doing another job, only to be forced into doing something completely different upon arrival.  Providing basic needs such as a place to stay or transportation was also a common recruitment tool.

Psychological violence was used in 97.6% of the cases, whereas physical violence was used in 25.6% of the cases. It was also very common to provide shelter and transportation to the victims.  Threats of deportation and withholding of passports/documentation was also used as a control tactic.

In addition, of the cases analyzed in this study, sentences ranged from no time in prison to life in prison with an average minimum sentence of 6.13 years. This number looks slightly different from predominantly sex trafficking prosecutions. For example, in fiscal year 2018, the Department of Justice initiated a total of 230 federal human trafficking investigations, of which 213 involved predominantly sex trafficking and 17 involved predominantly labor trafficking. Sentences ranged from three months to life imprisonment, with more than 70 percent of cases exceeding sentences of five years (Trafficking in Persons Report, 2019).


  • Develop and Implement Targeted Training The study found that almost half the victims were transported throughout the United States using all forms of public transportation. With training and development/implementation of reporting and response protocols, public transportation personnel could notice warning signs and alert appropriate law enforcement to potential situations of human trafficking. The Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force has locally been trying to engage with transit centers to come up with safe outreach mechanisms in those venues.
  • Targeted Law Enforcement Initiatives against Labor Trafficking. Training for law enforcement about the prevalence of labor trafficking as well as the differences between labor trafficking and smuggling/illegal immigration may lead to increased identification and enforcement. In 2018, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the International Association of Chiefs of Police began to coordinate labor trafficking courses for law enforcement in order to bring folks up to speed.
  • Increased Protections for Recovered Victims of Labor Trafficking. The majority of the victims were migrant workers (both documented and undocumented). When victims are identified, the focus is often on whether or not they entered the country legally or illegally. This study recommends focus on combated fraud and abuse of visa programs by labor traffickers. This year, task force members talked to contacts within the J-1 program to explore the various ways in which to close loopholes that perpetuate exploitation. We explore that program in a previous post here.
  • Providing person-centered and trauma informed services.  Victims of labor trafficking have a wide range of needs, and it important that these needs are provided in a person centered and trauma formed way.  Understanding how trauma impacts a survivor’s sense of self, what trauma behaviors may look like and that service delivery must be a partnership between client and provider are key concepts to what trauma informed care should look like (Clawson, Salomon and Goldblatt Grace, 2007). The general body of knowledge regarding trauma informed services to victims of sex trafficking is growing, there is little written about trauma informed treatment specifically for labor trafficking.
  • Development of Local Labor Coalitions   Anti-trafficking taskforces and coalitions can work with other entities that are connected to labor rights issues. This collaboration could serve as a space to discuss and plan interventions for labor trafficking, develop prevention programs and take part in building connections in the community with migrant workers to organize and learn about labor rights. The Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force’s Labor Trafficking Subcommittee has been working on this kind of collaboration for several years, which has resulted in key relationships and an increase in awareness around the issue of labor trafficking locally.


Kristen Bracy, Bandak Lul & Dominique Roe-Sepowitz (2019); A Four-year Analysis of Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States; Exploring Characteristics and Labor Trafficking Patterns, Journal of Human Trafficking

Freedom Network USA 2018 Member Survey, Retrieved from: https://freedomnetworkusa.org/

Trafficking in Persons Report (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-trafficking-in-persons-report/



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