It’s Happening Here: Identifying Partners for Proactive Labor Trafficking Investigations


It’s Happening Here: Identifying Partners for Proactive Labor Trafficking Investigations

Written By: iacpblog

Blog Post
Guest bloggers: Colleen Owens, Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., and Derek Marsh, Labor Trafficking Fellow, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

What does human trafficking look like in your community and what are you doing to combat it? Who are your partners in identifying suspects and providing services to victims?

President Obama’s Proclamation of January as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” is a call to action for law enforcement to dedicate themselves to combatting human trafficking. It has been 150 years since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but it still exists in the United States and no community is immune to it. Human trafficking is modern day slavery, resulting in the exploitation and abuse of an individual for commercial gain.

We have come a long way in the fight against human trafficking; however, we still have work to do – especially with respect to labor trafficking. Much has been published about identifying sex trafficking, which makes up 82% of all federally-funded task force investigations but there is more to be done in the area of labor trafficking.,, A 2014 Urban Institute/ Northeastern University report describes labor trafficking in the United States within five main industries: domestic work, agriculture, hospitality, restaurants, and construction. The report found that 71% of labor trafficking victims entered the U.S. lawfully with a visa for jobs they were recruited for and were subsequently trafficked in. However, by the time these victims escaped, 69% were unauthorized to remain in the U.S.

The typical labor trafficking case in the study involved an individual meeting with a recruitment agency operating abroad on behalf of U.S. employers. The recruitment agency engaged in high levels of fraud and coercion, misrepresenting the job and benefits, and demanding recruitment fees. On average, victims paid over $6,000 in fees (more than the average per capita income in the top six countries of origin). To afford these fees, they often mortgaged family property or took out high interest rate loans. Interviews at embassies or with border control did not identify any early red flags.

Once in the U.S., workers were degraded and dehumanized, forced to work for little or no pay, and had their documents seized and movement to and from work controlled. Victims faced extortion, psychological coercion, and manipulation, were deprived of food and medical care, and were forced to live in substandard and inhumane conditions, experiencing sexual abuse, rape, attempted murder, violence, and threats against themselves and family members, if they tried to leave.

For workers in the U.S. on a work visa, if they left their employer, they would become unauthorized to remain in the U.S. Employers used this fact to threaten them with arrest or deportation if they complained or tried to leave.

The majority of survivors interviewed for the Urban Institute/Northeastern University report knew they were victimized, but blamed themselves. Nearly all lacked knowledge they were being trafficked and that they had rights and protections under U.S. law, regardless of immigration status. Only 7% self-reported to police and 14% were arrested, most commonly for immigration violations rather than being identified as victims of a crime. The majority escaped on their own and lived several months or years before being properly identified.

In this study, neither law enforcement nor the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) were involved in proactively identifying labor trafficking. There was no evidence of arrest for more than half of all traffickers identified, and victims were rarely awarded civil damages or criminal restitution.

So where can you begin to uncover labor trafficking in your jurisdiction? Start by identifying partners using the “Barrier Model.” There are five core barriers that “must be overcome in order to commit” human trafficking of foreign nationals (Rijken, 2013, p. 20),:
  • Identity paperwork (creation and control) is needed for job recruiting and placement. Agencies involved with checking and confirming identity documentation are important partners, including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), all levels of law enforcement, DOL, health care agencies, and immigration attorneys.
  • Border entry is required for foreign national victims to be victimized in the U.S. Agencies participating in border crossing are important partners, including border patrol, travel agencies, transportation agencies (i.e., airlines, bus & coach services), the Coast Guard, port authorities, and the Transportation Security Administration.
  • Working against his/her will is a component of labor trafficking. Agencies responsible for finding jobs, placing workers, employing and providing employment, and overseeing business performance are critical partners. These agencies include local code enforcement, DOL, HSI, and product or work location regulatory agencies and inspectors.
  • Housing is required while victims are being compelled to work. Agencies responsible for the inspection and oversight of residential and commercial complexes, and their occupants, can be beneficial partners. Consider Housing and Urban Development (including local housing authorities), local code enforcement, building inspectors, fire departments (occupancy and fire hazard issues), Alcohol & Beverage Control, parole and probation officers, home owner and landlord associations, and medical outreach organizations.
  • Financial Flows (cash and credit) are created by employers of labor trafficking victims. Agencies and organizations involved with tracking business and personal funds include the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Treasury, U.S. Marshals, gaming commissions, mortgage/escrow companies, banks, and state tax agencies.
Focusing on these five barriers may provide opportunities for you and your partners to identify labor trafficking and victims who otherwise might remain undetected. Additionally, consider local community groups, businesses, and faith-based organizations as having insight and/or access to victims. Building the best integrated, multi-disciplinary team is critical for successful labor trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and victim recovery.

The IACP, with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and in partnership with Urban Institute and AEquitas, has launched the Enhancing Law Enforcement Human Trafficking Task Force Operations project which will provide law enforcement-related training and technical assistance (TTA) to the BJA/Office for Victims of Crime(OVC)-funded human trafficking task forces. The TTA project will focus on sex and labor trafficking and aims to close the gap in the identification, reporting, and enforcement of human trafficking laws. For project-related information or TTA, contact or visit the BJA website at


Banks, Duren, and Tracey Kyckelhahn. 2011. “Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2008–2010.” Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Newton, Phyllis J., Timothy M. Mulcahy, and Susan E. Martin. 2008. Finding Victims of Human Trafficking. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Farrell, Amy, and Rebecca Pfeffer. 2014. “Policing Human Trafficking: Cultural Blinders and Organizational Barriers.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 653 (1): 46–64.

Owens, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Banuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., Heitsmith, R., Bright, K., McDevitt, J. (2014) Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States. Report prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Owens, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Banuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., Heitsmith, R., Bright, K., McDevitt, J. (2014) Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States. Report prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Investigative Advisor Peter Vonk, Advisor Investigation Support Inspectorate SZW Investigation Department, The Hague Area, Netherlands (Presentation, 11-3-15).

Rijken, Conny (2013). Trafficking in human beings for labour exploitation: Cooperation in an integrated approach. European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice 21, pp. 9-35.

While this method is specific to labor trafficking of foreign nationals, cases have come forward involving labor trafficking of US citizens – e.g., persons with disabilities and runaway and homeless youth. For more information, see: and
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