What is Forced Labor?

What is Forced Labor?

Forced labor occurs when individuals are compelled to provide work or service through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. This crime happens both in the United States and overseas, and victims rarely come forward to seek help because they may be unable to escape their environment, are too vulnerable to seek assistance, potential language barriers may exist, or they do not self-recognize as a victim.

Indicators of forced labor may take place during the worker’s recruitment process to force the acceptance of the job, to deceive the worker into an exploitative job, or to create debt bondage by charging recruitment fees that cannot be paid back reasonably. Once the person is working, an employer may force, defraud, or coerce the victim to do work not agreed to at the time of recruitment. Additionally, force, threats of harm, and other abusive practices may be used to prevent the victim from leaving the job. Threats may be against the victim or the victim's loved ones. A list of indicators of forced labor can be found here.

Forced Labor in the United States

Despite our nation's foundation in freedom guaranteed in our Constitution, forced labor exists and persists even today. Victims of forced labor in the United States can be citizens, or they can originate from almost every region of the world, regardless of whether they have entered the United States with or without legal status. Traffickers frequently target vulnerable populations, such as individuals without lawful immigration status, those who incurred recruitment debts, and those who are isolated, impoverished, or disabled, to name a few. U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, and children can all be victims of forced labor.

Law enforcement has uncovered forced labor in a variety of industries, including illicit massage businesses, domestic work, agriculture, factory work, and many other industries. For instance, forced labor appears in door-to-door sales crews, bars and restaurants, peddling and begging, health and beauty services, construction, hospitality, and commercial cleaning services, to name a few.

Goods Produced with Forced Labor Destined for U.S. Markets

Goods imported to the U.S. produced with forced labor undermine legitimate trade and competition. U.S. law prohibits the importation of goods mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part with forced labor and violators may face criminal and/or civil consequences. A lack of transparency in complex, extensive global supply chains or a lack of attention to the problem of forced labor can endanger the lives of laborers and negatively impact consumers and corporations. A vast majority of the goods produced through forced labor are either raw materials or sub-components of the early stages of a corporate supply chain. In a textile supply chain, for example, people working in the early stages of a product's lifecycle are at the highest risk of exploitation and forced labor:

  • Raw Material Sourcing – Commonly referred to by industry as “Tier 3” suppliers, the initial harvesting and preparation of raw materials is often manual-labor-intensive and dangerous as laborers can be exposed to harsh chemicals. Tier 3 suppliers are often small, unregulated operations.
  • Component/Sub-assembly – “Tier 2” suppliers perform component and sub-assembly manufacturing and often uses materials from multiple Tier 3 suppliers.  Unfortunately, not all Tier 2 suppliers perform the due diligence to ensure their lower-level suppliers do not engage in forced labor. Forced labor can also be present at this stage.
  • Final assembly/Finished product – The “Tier 1” supplier assembles the components/sub-assemblies into a finished product. Some Tier 1 suppliers may serve only one retailer or brand while others may produce final products for multiple retailers. For many products, the final assembly process also requires intensive manual labor. While the risk of forced labor being used in this stage is lower, the risk still exists.

The U.S. has an explicit statutory prohibition on the importation of goods produced using forced labor and can bring to bear criminal and civil penalties to combat it. You can learn more about supply chain compliance on issues of child labor and forced labor by utilizing the Department of Labor’s (DOL) "Comply Chain" application that helps companies and industry groups seeking to develop robust social compliance systems for their global production. DOL also makes available its reporting on child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking in a separate mobile application Sweat and Toil that puts 1,000 pages of research in the palm of your hand.

How You Can Help

You can take an active role in ending forced labor, and awareness of this abuse is a crucial first step.

  • Watch the Blue Campaign Labor Trafficking Awareness Videos to learn about the indicators of forced labor and how to report them.
  • Become a well-informed consumer. There are a variety of digital applications and websites that are designed for consumers to research and make informed purchases with the confidence that their dollars are not supporting forced labor practices.
  • To report suspected civil forced labor trade violations, submit information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at eallegations.cbp.gov/Home/allegation.
  • To report criminal violations of forced labor in corporate supply chains submit information to ICE.ForcedLabor@ice.dhs.gov, or contact Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) at 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423)

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