What is Labor Trafficking?
The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates $50 billion in illegal profits on the backs of as many as 21 million men, women, and children, worldwide.
Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of a person for compelled labor or a commercial sex act. Labor trafficking, also referred to as forced labor, is a form of human trafficking. It encompasses a range of activities, such as recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining, that come into play when a person uses force or physical threats, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, deception, or other coercive means to compel someone to work. Victims are forced to perform labor or services, typically in domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, or entertainment.
Despite its size and scope, labor trafficking can be hard to detect and prosecute because bullied and intimidated workers are often too fearful to come forward and cooperate with authorities. A growing awareness of the crime and a robust victim support infrastructure have helped to break the silence and expose a growing number of criminal employers for investigation and prosecution.
The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) is uniquely equipped to attack this insidious global problem. Posted at more than 275 U.S. diplomatic missions in 170 countries, DSS special agents work with international organizations and host nation law enforcement to build the local partnerships necessary to effectively investigate sophisticated international human trafficking enterprises. Increasingly, DSS has leveraged this unique global capacity to dramatically bolster the local efforts of human trafficking task forces operating in a number of jurisdictions in the United States.
The Most Recent DSS Cases
On Dec. 15, 2016, a Texas man was found guilty on multiple counts of harboring, conspiracy, and visa fraud. His company had abused the work visa system by bringing H-2B visa workers from Mexico into the United States, underpaying them, and housing them in dangerous conditions.
The defendant used legal H-2B visa workers, who were lawfully able to work in the United States, to obtain lucrative employment contracts. He housed these workers on an isolated tree farm in inhumane conditions while forcing them to work outdoors, over 80 hours per week, in the hot Texas summer. Threats of deportation and non-payment kept the workers quiet for years until two of them reported their situation to a Department of State official at the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico.
After learning of the allegations, DSS agents and analysts scoured voluminous amounts of data to identify the criminal scheme. A key partner in this case, the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, analyzed records seized in the search warrants and calculated over $3 million in back wages due to the victims. DSS agents also supported applications for appropriate immigration relief, as well as referrals to support services from local NGOs for six of the victims in this case.
DSS special agents and their partners investigated this case for more than three years, resulting in convictions and an asset forfeiture totaling more than $1.8 million. The wide-spread media coverage in North Texas led to more tips of labor trafficking throughout the region.
In another recent case, three people were found guilty of conducting a criminal scheme for personal gain by recruiting, defrauding, and exploiting 76 temporary workers at a farm in Minnesota. They had forced workers to pay substantial, up-front fees in order to work in the United States and then subjugated them into servitude by threatening to bar them from future work in the United States.
The three individuals recruited victims from the Dominican Republic and brought them to the United States on non-immigrant H-2A visas to work on the farm. They then required workers to pay a recruitment fee of approximately half what these workers typically made a year in the Dominican Republic. They also forced workers to pay thousands of dollars in wage kickbacks and pay for their airfare to and from the Dominican Republic, in addition to an annual fee to secure their employment for the following year’s growing season.
In addition to being defrauded, victims were psychologically and physical threatened. Because the recruiter held influence in the Dominican Republic, he threatened to blacklist workers who did not comply, and had thugs threaten physical violence should they cooperate with federal investigators.
The DSS-led investigation revealed the perpetrators were in violation of federal regulations governing H-2A visas prohibiting employers from collecting recruitment fees or wage kickbacks. As a result of this successful investigation and trial, the employer was ordered to pay workers $576,707 in back wages, overtime, and other restitution, as well as being subjected to an asset forfeiture all totaling approximately $1 million.
This DSS-led case resulted in the first-ever H-2A visa labor trafficking case successfully prosecuted by the U.S. government. These are two of many human trafficking cases that showcase DSS as a major player in the U.S. government’s push to abolish labor trafficking, both in the United States and all over the world.
All H-2 visa issuing posts provide a pamphlet that explains workers’ rights while in the United States as required under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act. This pamphlet is available in English and 38 other languages, including Spanish. This information is also available in video format and can be played in consular waiting rooms overseas in the local language. The consular officer verifies during the interview that the applicant has not only received the pamphlet, but also understands what it says. The pamphlet provides hotlines workers may contact if they believe they may be victims of human trafficking.
The Department of State routinely shares information related to alleged labor violations with the Department of Labor.