The-Legal-Status-of-Human-Trafficking-for-Labor.jpg (2149×1159)Labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. People are brought into the United States with the promise of employment. When they arrive, they find conditions are not as promised. They usually find that the promise is false and they are forced to perform labor with little or no remuneration under the threat of arrest and deportation or under the threat of physical assault.


Human trafficking is an international problem on a global scale.

A 2017 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 25 million people are trapped into modern-day slavery every year, 64 percent are exploited for labor, 19 percent are sexually exploited. Frequently, trafficked labor is forced to work as servants, farm workers, or factory labor without days off and under substandard living conditions. According to Human Rights First, 19 percent of victims are trafficked into the sex trade. The majority (71 percent) are women and girls. Human trafficking can be profitable, earning profits of about $150 billion dollars a year for importers. The Asian-Pacific region imports 15.4 million victims of human trafficking (64 percent). The Americas import 1.2 million per year (5 percent).


There is a long history to this form of labor extortion. In colonial and pre-colonial times, property owners with large tracts of land needed cheap labor to care for their homes and farms. At that time, sea passage to America was expensive for all but the wealthy. In the early 1600s, the Virginia Company devised a system to attract workers. These indentured workers became as vital a part of the colonial economy as slaves were over the next centuries. In exchange for their sea passage to America, food, and accommodation, workers would indenture themselves, contract to work without pay for four to seven years. If they survived the difficult conditions of indentured servitude, they would be freed and often given land. However, contracts could be extended as a punishment for misbehavior.

Legal Protection.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) (as amended in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013) defines labor trafficking as recruiting, harboring, transporting, or obtaining a person for labor or services by fraud, force or coercion. The Justice for victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) added new amendments in 2015. JVTA sets up a fund to provide money and material aid victims of trafficking.

United States Title 18 section 1589 makes it unlawful to hold a person in “debt solitude” (or “peonage”), prohibits using force, threat of force, or threat of legal coercion to compel people to work against their will. Involuntary servitude must be directly tied to payment of a real debt. Forced labor is also illegal under Title 18, as is sex trafficking of children. In the revised law, the crime does not require that victims be transported. The law addresses the means by which victims are held in servitude, means like psychological coercion, trickery, and the seizure of documents like passports.

There are both state and federal laws criminalizing human trafficking. It is a crime in every state. In California’s statute, for instance, human trafficking is a felony punishable by 3 to 5 years in state prison. Trafficking in minors carries a state prison term of from 4 to 8 years. Federal penalties vary from 10 years to life in prison.

Weak Enforcement.

According to the 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, there were only 14,895 prosecutions and only 9,071 convictions across the world in 2016. This out of 25 million incidents. Detailed data on human trafficking in the United States is hard to get. A hotline established in 2014 by U.S. Government for trafficking victims received 21,000 calls. During that time, the Justice Department secured 184 convictions for trafficking. According to the 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, there were only 14,895 prosecutions and only 9,071 convictions in 2016. This out of 25 million incidents.

Advocates for victims’ rights say that the work that victims do, for the most part, is perfectly legal, like cleaning stores or picking fruit. The working conditions of victims are often not visible. Many victims actually enter the country on legal visas on a temporary basis to fill real job vacancies. They are often told by their employers that efforts are being made to get permanent residency status (on condition that they don’t complain). Often the guest worker visa system itself can leave workers vulnerable because the H-2 visa, in effect, binds the worker to the employer. The worker fears deportation more than the employer fears prison.

Aiman-Smith & Marcy are a team of collaborative lawyers who work together on every aspect of your case. We view each case as a partnership between ourselves and you, the client. If you are being treated unfairly or under an illegal working arrangement, please contact us.

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