Forced labor occurs when individuals are compelled against their will to provide work or service through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. This crime happens both in the United States and overseas. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 24.9 million people around the globe were in forced labor as of 2016. Victims are rarely able to seek help for various reasons. For instance, they may be hindered by language barriers, or they may physically be unable to leave the premises to seek help if their movements are restricted and monitored by their employer.
Who is Affected
Traffickers who exploit people for forced labor do not discriminate. Neither do employers: Victims can be any age, race, religious affiliation, gender identity, or nationality. They may also come from any socioeconomic group. Certain risk factors, however, may make certain individuals more vulnerable to forced labor than others. These include:
- Unstable immigration status
- Language barriers
- Poverty and lack of basic needs like food, shelter, and safety
- The psychological effects of a recent or past trauma
- Lack of social support systems like friends, family, and community
- Physical or developmental disabilities
Traffickers frequently target vulnerable populations, such as children, individuals without lawful immigration status, those with 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.
What Does it Look Like?
Forced labor indicators often intersect and overlap, feeding into each other. Some signs may be more subtle than others. For instance, the individual could fall into debt during the recruitment process, compounded by an employer who takes unexpected deductions from their pay. The worker then cannot repay their debt as quickly as they had anticipated, falling further into debt bondage as a result of both deception and withholding of wages. Does an individual appear to be monitored when talking to or interacting with others? Are they living in dangerous, overcrowded, or inhumane lodging provided by an employer? Are they isolated, physically or culturally? A “yes” to any of these questions could indicate a potential forced labor situation.
Indicators of forced labor may take place at any point during the recruitment and employment process. Forced labor could begin during the worker’s recruitment process to force the acceptance of the job, to deceive the worker into an exploitative job, or to create a situation of debt bondage by charging recruitment fees that are virtually impossible for the workers to repay. Once the person is working, an employer may also force, defraud, or coerce the victim to perform work not agreed to at the time of recruitment. A worker may agree to do a job, find the conditions are not what were expected and agreed upon, but be prevented from leaving the job by their employer.
A list of indicators used to identify whether forced labor is occurring can be found on the ILO’s website.
While forced labor is an international issue, it does occur 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.
Despite the misconception that most forced labor victims are in the country illegally, a study by the National Institute of Justice found that 71% of those experiencing forced labor in the United States entered the country on lawful H-2A and H-2B visas. A recent investigative report of a large-scale South Georgia labor trafficking ring revealed findings consistent with those statistics. Of 26 farmworkers rescued on November 17, 2021, all were Latin American migrants who came to Georgia with legal visas.
Law enforcement in the United States has uncovered forced labor in a variety of industries.
Domestic Labor Trafficking by Sector (2020)
*Data provided by National Human Trafficking Hotline
|Domestic Labor Trafficking Sector||Percent|
|Traveling Sales Crews||6%|
|Other (Restaurant/Food Service, Hospitality, etc.)||56%|
There are 24.9 million victims of forced labor worldwide. In the United States, domestic work is the most common venue for labor exploitation, including forced labor.
As of June 23, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor comprised 155 goods from 77 countries produced by forced labor, including forced child labor. Gold, bricks, and sugarcane were the goods most commonly listed by number of countries for forced labor, and bricks, cotton, and garments were those most commonly listed by number of countries for child labor.
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 workers 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. In the textile supply chain, the Tier 3 supplier would be the farm that sells cotton to the textile mill.
- Component/Sub-assembly – “Tier 2” suppliers perform component and sub-assembly manufacturing and often uses materials from multiple Tier 3 suppliers. In the textile supply chain, the mill itself would be the Tier 2 supplier. 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, like many in the textile supply chain, 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 DOL’s "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. In September 2021, DOL launched a new interactive, web-based visualization tool called the Better Trade Tool that connects research on child labor and forced labor with U.S. import trade data, including US Harmonized Tariff Schedule codes. This new compliance and accountability tool empowers users to advance efforts in supply chain transparency as well as strategic sourcing priorities.
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 labor trafficking 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 allegation 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 the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) tip line at 866-347-2423 or submit a HSI tip form online.
- Download the International Labour Organization Indicators of Forced Labour Brochure
- DOL's Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) resources and reports on child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.