Risk Factors & Indicators: Forced Labor

Originally published June 23, 2011 on MeetJustice.org.

If you are financially comfortable enough to read (or write) blogs about human trafficking, you’re likely comfortable enough to buy food you enjoy eating and clothing you like wearing. Our economic system allows us the luxury of purchasing these items at a relatively low price- and it also shields us from their true cost. This often distances us from cases of forced labor: we’re saddened to know that it exists, but we’d be horrified if we found out the shirt on our back was made by someone who was trapped in an exploitative situation.

However, it’s simply not practical for everyone to abandon consumerism and live a Thoreau-like lifestyle of self-sustainability. Nor is it productive to ask every teenaged salesperson at the store if the person who grew their flowers was making a fair wage. We shouldn’t be paralyzed by guilt for making consumer choices: we’ve got to eat, after all, and we simply can’t always know the working conditions of whoever made our food. What we SHOULD do is recognize that forced labor is a reality and respond to the problem.

This is easier said than done. Recognizing victims of forced labor isn’t easy: traffickers depend on secrecy. Roger Plant, Director of the ILO’s Special Action Program to combat Forced Labor, stressed to members of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development that “…there are many, many much more subtle forms of coercion that need to be captured. They’re very difficult to identify.” (MediaGlobal)

This victim profile will highlight who is at risk of forced labor , where they might be found in the U.S, indicators that a person is a victim, and two common myths that make it tough to identify forced labor cases of human trafficking.

Who’s at risk of forced labor?

  • Migrant workers, both documented and undocumented. In the United States, foreign workers are the most commonly exploited group for forced labor purposes. Undocumented workers can be threatened by their trafficker with deportation or arrest if they try to seek help. Documented workers can have their passports and identification taken from them until they ‘pay off a debt’ they owe.
  • Children.

“Children under the age of 18 are thought to represent 40-50%of all forced labour.” (UN Global Impact)

  • Women.

“Although men and boys are also vulnerable to trafficking, a significant social factor underlying trafficking is the low status of women and girls in many parts of the world. Low status can lead to discriminatory and abusive treatment… Where girls are less valued than boys, families make less investment in the girls’ futures. Girls can be considered a financial burden to the family if they are not providing an additional income. Current limitations on girls’ access to education and information also increases their vulnerability.” (CRS)

    • Men. According to the U.S State Department, between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of adult male victims of human trafficking jumped from 6% to 45%. The Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns report claims, “it is men especially who might be expected to be trafficked for forced labor purposes.”
    • Poor Workers: those without access to union representation or legal council.

Where can forced labor situations take place?

It’s not just in the fields and sweat shops of third world countries. Restauraunts, traveling sales crews, traveling carnivals, nail salons and other small businesses, factories, the agricultural industry, private homes, and even peddling/begging rings have all been documented as sometimes using coercion or manipulation of both American and foreign workers into forced labor.

Indicators of Forced Labor

    • Excessive Over-time
    • Any evidence that the person cannot leave his/her job
    • If someone is holding their passport or identification and they cannot have access to it.
    • Existing Debt Issues: if they owe their employer money
    • A lack of grievance mechanisms or unions at their job
    • Poor work and/or living conditions
    • The person is forced to speak through a translator and cannot/isn’t allowed to speak for his or herself.
    • If their boss manages, holds or “invests” their money for him/her
    • Bruises, cuts, burns, and other signs of physical abuse

Forced labor is defined as any “work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty, and for which that person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” As difficult as it is to identify it, there are a few misconceptions that people are often confused by.

Myth: If the victim is given any form/amount of payment, it’s not forced labor.

Truth: “Forced labour can take a number of forms and the provision of wages or other compensation does not necessarily indicate that labour is not forced or compulsory. For forced labour to occur, there must be a menace or threat.”

Myth: There must be physical coercion or restraint for it to be forced labor.

Truth: A person is a victim of forced labor “if they enter work or service against their freedom of choice and cannot leave it without penalty or the threat of penalty. This does not have to be physical punishment or constraint; it can take other forms, such as the loss of rights or privileges.” (UN Global Impact)

Forced labor is one of two major forms of human trafficking. Next week’s risk factors and indicators profile will be focused on sex trafficking in general.

This blog is part of a series of victim profiles.

Read about risk factors and indicators of CSEC by clicking here.

Read about risk factors and indicators of Sex Trafficking by clicking here.




Catholic Releif Sources

Children at Risk

Free to Shop

UN Global Impact


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