Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery, is a crime that involves the exploitation of a person for the purpose of compelled sex or labor.
There is no single profile of a trafficking victim. Victims of human trafficking can be anyone—regardless of race, color, national origin, disability, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, education level, or citizenship status.
Any person under the age of 18 who is engaged in commercial sex acts, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion, is a victim of human trafficking, even if they appear to consent to the commercial sex act.
Although there is no defining characteristic that all human trafficking victims share, traffickers frequently prey on individuals who are poor, vulnerable, living in an unsafe situation, or are in search of a better life.
In the United States, some of the most vulnerable populations include American Indian/Alaska Native communities, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning individuals, individuals with disabilities, undocumented immigrants, runaway and homeless youth, and low-income individuals. These victims are deceived by false promises of love, a good job, or a stable life and are lured or forced into situations where they are made to work under deplorable conditions with little or no pay.
Just as there is no one type of trafficking victim, perpetrators of this crime also vary. Traffickers can be foreign nationals or U.S. citizens, family members, partners, acquaintances, and even strangers.
People often incorrectly assume that all traffickers are males; however, multiple cases in the United States have revealed that women can also be traffickers. Traffickers can be pimps, gang members, diplomats, business owners, labor brokers, and farm, factory, and company owners.
Victims can be found in legal and illegal labor industries, including child care, elder care, the drug trade, massage parlors, hair salons, restaurants, hotels, factories, and farms. In some cases, victims are hidden behind doors in domestic servitude in a home. Others are in plain view, interact with people on a daily basis, and are forced to work under extreme circumstances in exotic dance clubs, construction, health and beauty services, or restaurants. These conditions exist across the United States.
Human trafficking is a complex issue. Providing comprehensive and specialized services that address specific needs of all victims of human trafficking is a priority of OVC.
From July 2019 through June 2020, 227 OVC human trafficking grantees reported serving—
This year, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) is commemorating 20 years of administering Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) funding that supports survivors of human trafficking.
In 2003, OVC awarded 12 grants under a new human trafficking program facilitated by the 2000 passage of the TVPA, which authorized the Attorney General to make grants to victim service organizations to develop, expand, or strengthen services for victims of trafficking. Per statue, these grants focused on services to foreign national victims of human trafficking, the majority of whom had experienced labor trafficking.
Today, OVC manages the largest amount of anti-trafficking funding across the Federal Government, currently overseeing almost 500 awards totaling over $325 million. These awards support both the delivery of direct services and a broad array of training and technical assistance for anti-trafficking victim service providers, law enforcement, and allied professionals.
The TVPA defines two forms of human trafficking, which are referred to as “severe forms of trafficking in persons”: sex trafficking, in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age,” and labor trafficking, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
For much of the past two decades, anti-trafficking efforts within the United States have predominantly focused on sex trafficking, and there is growing recognition that more needs to be done to address labor trafficking. This was reflected in the 2018 TVPA reauthorization, which increased reporting obligations for prohibited goods produced through forced labor. It was also reflected as a top recommendation in the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, to “Increase efforts to comprehensively address labor trafficking in the United States.”
While OVC has always worked to ensure that all victims of human trafficking are provided with needed services, OVC is working to better identify labor trafficking victims in the United States, expand the services that are available to them, and hold offenders accountable.
A SNAPSHOT OF CURRENT EFFORTS TO RESPOND TO LABOR TRAFFICKING IN THE UNITED STATES
The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is published annually by the U.S. Department of State and offers a comprehensive overview of the anti-trafficking field and global anti-trafficking efforts. The 2022 TIP Report urged relevant government agencies to enhance efforts to combat labor trafficking and serve victims. It acknowledged “a continued lack of progress to comprehensively address labor trafficking in the United States, including in efforts to identify victims, provide them specialized services, and hold labor traffickers, including contractors and recruiters, accountable.” It found that while forced labor was particularly prevalent in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, construction, and domestic work, no economic sector is immune to it.
The 2022 TIP Report also identified a disconnect between the justice system, which continues to prosecute predominantly sex trafficking cases at the federal level, and the broader anti-trafficking field, which is assisting significant numbers of labor trafficking victims. Of the 603 human trafficking investigations that the Department of Justice (DOJ) formally opened in fiscal year (FY) 2021, 577 involved predominantly sex trafficking, versus 26 that involved predominantly labor trafficking. Similarly, just 7 of the 228 federal human trafficking prosecutions that DOJ initiated in FY 2021 involved predominantly labor trafficking; the rest targeted sex trafficking. Advocates are particularly concerned by the low number of federal labor trafficking cases involving child labor trafficking victims, private employer or corporate defendants, and forced criminality.
One major point of emphasis in the 2022 TIP Report is the importance of survivor engagement. Listening to, learning from, and uplifting those with lived experience is critical to improving anti-trafficking efforts. This may be particularly true for labor trafficking, which often goes unrecognized and unreported. But stakeholders must engage survivors responsibly. For instance, survivor stories can powerfully illuminate the reality of human trafficking but telling these stories can retraumatize survivors. Organizations that are considering engaging survivors must ensure that they take a victim-centered, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive approach; provide compensation for survivors’ expertise and contributions; and be willing to dedicate resources and explore ways to implement any changes recommended by survivor leaders. OVC funding supports survivor-informed programming in a variety of ways, including a new training and technical assistance initiative to help OVC grantees develop and implement sustainable survivor engagement in their anti-trafficking programming and labor trafficking resources specifically focused on lifting up survivor voices.
Both the TIP Report and the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, first released by the White House in 2020 and updated in December 2021, also promote the need to incorporate equity into anti-trafficking work. While there is no one profile of a labor trafficking victim, just as there is no one profile of a trafficker, traditionally underserved populations are clearly highly represented. Traffickers prey on individuals who are impoverished, vulnerable, living in an unsafe situation, or are in search of a better life. And though human trafficking impacts every community in America, it disproportionately impacts persons of color and LGBTQI+ individuals. Since labor trafficking and inequity are inextricably linked, government agencies, law enforcement, NGOs, and other advocates must take an equity-based approach to anti-trafficking work.
RESEARCH ON LABOR TRAFFICKING
The 2022 TIP Report stated that “Unbiased and comprehensive data is crucial to highlighting trends, informing decision-making on domestic policies and priorities, updating anti-trafficking legislation, and appropriately allocating resources, from the local to the national level.” To improve the data and better inform decision making, OVC has partnered with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to fund research on human trafficking. Under its Research and Evaluation on Trafficking in Persons program, NIJ is working to better understand, prevent, and respond to trafficking in the U.S., focusing on projects that have clear implications for criminal justice policy and practice.
Human trafficking has often been called an invisible crime, and one of the major research priorities is to better understand how it operates in the U.S. NIJ’s article, “Understanding and Characterizing Labor Trafficking Among U.S. Citizen Victims,” addresses a research gap on how U.S. citizens (rather than foreign nationals) experience labor trafficking. It found that U.S. citizens who worked in construction, food service, and janitorial sectors were most at risk of encountering abuse. Another NIJ-sponsored study that is currently underway will build on our understanding of why certain industries have higher rates of labor trafficking victimization.
While it is notoriously difficult to identify labor trafficking cases, “Understanding What Works in the Successful Identification, Investigation, and Prosecution of Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States” is taking lessons learned from five U.S. counties that have been able to effectively address labor trafficking crimes in their communities. The findings will inform future law enforcement responses to labor trafficking and show the role that laws, policies, and local culture play in the identification and response to these cases. There are also lessons to be learned by studying locations that have high incident rates of labor trafficking. “Understanding the Trafficking of Children for the Purpose of Labor in the United States” is collecting data from four U.S. sites where multiple child labor trafficking cases have occurred, looking at who the perpetrators are and how they operate, and the challenges to victim identification and response.
Finally, we need to close gaps in our knowledge about how trafficking survivors participate in and relate to the criminal justice system. “Bending Towards Justice: Perceptions of Justice among Human Trafficking Survivors” takes a step in that direction; it found that survivors often focused more on preventing what happened to them from happening to others than punishing the offenders. Labor trafficking survivors, for instance, suggested implementing visa restrictions to prevent abusive employers from bringing more workers into the country. Both survivors and stakeholders were skeptical about the criminal justice system’s capacity to help survivors, and were open to alternative forms of justice, such as restorative justice.
OVC’S ANTI-TRAFFICKING EFFORTS
As the anti-human trafficking field has grown in the U.S., so too have OVC’s human trafficking programs evolved. Today, there are more funding opportunities and educational resources to help combat labor trafficking and serve victims than ever before. This past October, DOJ announced over $90 million of funding to provide services to trafficking victims, support multidisciplinary and state-level responses, deliver national training and technical assistance, and support research and evaluation on responses to trafficking. Through its award funding, training and technical assistance, and collaboration with federal partners, OVC has worked to strengthen identification of and responses to labor trafficking victims in the United States.
Despite these efforts, labor trafficking remains misunderstood, under-identified, underreported, and often unaddressed. As reflected in OVC grantee data, many individuals experience polyvictimization, including both labor and sex trafficking. OVC is committed to increasing identification and expanding access to services and justice for victims of labor trafficking. This year, OVC’s FY 2023 anti-trafficking funding opportunities include language to emphasize that applicants should propose meaningful responses to labor trafficking victims in their grant applications. This will be a new endeavor for some organizations, and OVC will meet grantees where they are through investments in research, training and technical assistance, and comprehensive, wrap-around services for victims of human trafficking. This renewed focus will help ensure that more labor trafficking victims can access the full range of trauma-informed and victim-centered services they need, both in the immediate aftermath of their victimization and over the long term as they work towards healing and recovery.
OVC also provides resources and leadership to the anti-trafficking field, by publishing public awareness materials, hosting roundtables and webinars with stakeholders, forming expert working groups on trafficking-related issues, and undertaking other activities that promote and advance the cause of justice for victims of human trafficking. Every organization that intersects with human trafficking victims should have the resources they need to identify victims and effectively serve them. To that end, OVC funds several training and technical assistance providers that have expertise in human trafficking, including labor trafficking.
The Framework: Tools to Combat Labor Trafficking project provides a platform for labor trafficking survivors and other experts to help service providers and their community partners identify and serve survivors of labor trafficking. Its user-friendly archive of resources includes webinars, e-learning courses, tip sheets, guides, and other materials that support the identification of survivors of labor trafficking and provision of transformative services. For instance, the Labor Trafficking Outreach Planning Discussion Guide provides insights and examples to help anti-trafficking programs, task forces, or other community partners develop or enhance their labor trafficking outreach strategy. The archive also includes a series of short takeaway sheets on specialized labor trafficking topics, such as Labor Trafficking of U.S. Minors and Outreach to Agricultural Workers. Other OVC-funded training and technical assistance providers have disseminated other relevant resources, such as the Human Trafficking Capacity Building Center’s Labor Trafficking Resource Guide and Labor Trafficking 101: Learning the Basics.
OVC also produces resources and educational materials on labor trafficking directly. For instance, OVC produced a nine-part video series on human trafficking called Faces of Human Trafficking. The third video in the series, titled An Introduction to Labor Trafficking, features survivors who share their stories of being trafficked, and law enforcement, judges, social service workers, and other professionals who advise viewers on victim indicators, ways they may encounter victims, and industries where labor trafficking is more common. OVC also published interactive Child Victims and Witness Support Materials for children and youth impacted by human trafficking. These short graphic novels focus on young sex and labor trafficking survivors’ experiences, plus accompanying booklets that focus on victim’s rights and roles as they interact with the justice system. Caregiver and practitioner guides are available for those supporting these victims.
Slowly but surely, organizations that serve labor trafficking victims or strive to prevent it are gaining the resources they need to perform their essential work. OVC is proud to be part of the collaborative efforts taking place between the Federal Government and the anti-trafficking field to urgently act on the problem of human trafficking, and in particular labor trafficking, which has historically been overshadowed by sex trafficking in terms of media attention, prosecutorial efforts, and research dollars.
Although the U.S. Department of Justice has long enforced criminal laws against involuntary servitude and slavery, the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) (Pub. L. 106-386) was a turning point.
The TVPA enhanced the Federal Government’s response to trafficking in the United States by—
- Affording increased protections and resources for victims.
- Creating new crime types and enhancing penalties when prosecuting human trafficking offenders.
- Expanding the U.S. Government’s international activities to prevent vulnerable populations from being trafficked.
Further information on what the Federal Government is doing to combat human is available in the following reports—
- Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons
- Trafficking in Persons Annual Report (see the Country Narratives, United States of America section)
State and local governments have increasingly built stronger responses against human trafficking affecting their communities. Today, all states have enacted laws to better protect victims of human trafficking and enhance prosecution efforts, while finding ways to adapt to the changing modes of human trafficking. To find your state statute, visit VictimLaw, a comprehensive online database of federal, state, and Tribal victims’ rights law.
National Conference of State Legislatures Human Trafficking State Laws
This OVC-funded resource provides information about state laws to combat human trafficking and assist trafficking survivors. The site provides information on legislation that—
- criminalizes trafficking crimes,
- provides survivor protections in court,
- provides services to survivors,
- increases cooperation and coordination between agencies, and
- seeks to prevent human trafficking.
Human trafficking impacts all of us. Everyone can play a role in victim identification and raising community awareness. To get involved and help put an end to human trafficking, you can—
- Learn how to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
- Report a potential human trafficking victim or situation by calling 911. Do not attempt to intervene in a situation yourself.
- Volunteer: contact local OVC-funded service providers or OVC-funded Task Forces to learn how you can help. Visit the services and task forces map.
- Raise awareness: public education is the key to helping others understand how to effectively identify and respond to the crime of human trafficking. Visit the Faces of Human Trafficking page for more tools to help spread the word, and share the information via Facebook and Twitter.
- Stay informed: explore our website and subscribe to receive News From OVC.
- Visit our human trafficking training page for continuing education opportunities.