Labor trafficking impacts vulnerable US citizens—many suffer in silence

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Vulnerable U.S. citizens face the same kinds of workplace intimidation, sexual harassment, and paycheck fraud from employers that foreign-born workers encounter—but those labor trafficking offenses get far less attention, according to new research by Amy Farrell, a Northeastern professor who studies human trafficking.

Amy Farrell, director and professor of criminology and criminal justice and co-director of the Violence and Justice Research Lab, sought to shed light on the labor exploitation of U.S. citizens. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Farrell and her colleagues spoke with 240 workers, providing a rare look at the labor exploitation of U.S. citizens specifically as opposed to workers who are immigrants employed temporarily or working without a visa. The exploratory study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, spoke with workers in Anchorage, Alaska; San Diego, California; New York, and Boston, and is meant to give an overview of the kind of jobs held by victims of human trafficking, their life experiences, and how the victims can seek help. 

Farrell discussed the study, which she worked on with Meredith Dank from John Jay College, researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and Stephen Abeyta, a criminology doctoral student at Northeastern, in a wide-ranging interview with News@Northeastern. Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

What kind of jobs did these labor exploitation victims work?

Many of the participants worked in similar industries. For example, 34 percent of those exploited had jobs in food services, 21 percent worked in construction, 19 percent in janitorial services, and 15 percent in retail. Sixty-six percent had jobs in a wide variety of industries, such as modeling or sales. [Participants were able to report working in more than one industry in the study.]

What was the type of labor exploitation or trafficking they experienced?

Out of 240 participants, 83 percent reported deception or lies from their employer. Employers misrepresented the type of work or the amount of work they were doing, for example. Because these workers faced multiple labor law offenses, 83 percent also reported exploitative labor practices, such as getting paid less than minimum wage, working holidays and overtime without extra pay, getting paid with things like gift cards, food, or housing. Sixty percent said their communication and movements were restricted, and they were prevented from contacting family or leaving the workplace.

Did you find any common life circumstances that left U.S. citizens more vulnerable to labor trafficking?

A common risk factor was a history of violence in the home, 52 percent of the participants who experienced labor exploitation had left home due to violence, and 35 percent were either living at a homeless shelter or were couch surfing and staying with various friends and family. Workers who had been incarcerated were very vulnerable because employment was often a condition of their parole, and 63 percent had been arrested at some point in their lives.

Why did you want to study labor exploitation among U.S. citizens?

When people think about labor exploitation, a lot of people have a picture of a foreign national worker in a sweatshop or out in the field somewhere, and they’re not thinking about the person that’s serving them coffee. They’re not thinking about the person who has a job in construction, retail, or at a restaurant—industries where we found lots of vulnerability.

It also helps to show law enforcement and others combatting labor exploitation that, “Hey, this group of people that you never think about as being labor trafficking victims are, in fact, victims of labor trafficking.”

Considering these crimes are underreported, how did you find the participants?

We decided to use a different methodology in this study called a chain referral methodology. We identified populations that would be vulnerable to labor trafficking and reached out to providers who work with those groups. So, for example, one of the groups that we know is very vulnerable to labor trafficking are people who are housing insecure, so we’d work with programs that address homelessness.

We’d identify and interview one or two victims and then give them referral cards for up to three people who are in their social network that they knew had faced similar circumstances.

How can law enforcement and other agencies crack down on labor exploitation, particularly when it comes to U.S. citizens?

About 69 percent of study participants never sought help, but most of these

industries have some level of government inspection services. Restaurants have all sorts of inspectors that are going in and ensuring that there’s accountability, looking for either civil violations of the fair labor standards or criminal violations.

The people that are in and out of these industries aren’t law enforcement, but they are regulators, and they could identify red flags of victimization. Regulators with the Department of Labor are looking for labor trafficking at workplaces where there are numerous foreign national workers. They’re less apt to look for labor trafficking in situations where you may have more U.S. citizen workers, and this report really suggests, in fact, there needs to be a re-education and training to look for red flags at workplaces with U.S. citizen workers as well.

You suggest this report could provide insight into the current labor shortage. Can you explain why?

I think this is a pretty timely report because, as we start to think about coming out of the COVID-19 shut down and we’re seeing a decrease in federal benefits, there’s still a question of whether people will return to work at some of these lower-paying jobs. We had a summer of restaurants being closed multiple days a week because of staffing shortages and hotels not being able to find enough workers.

People may not, in fact, be returning to work at low-wage jobs because these are just bad jobs. The pandemic gave these workers some breathing room to be able to say, “I don’t know. Actually, I got myself stable enough that I don’t want to go back into that situation again.” So if we want to deal with the staffing shortages, those industries have to take a really hard look at how they’re operating. Not only how they pay people, but whether or not the industries themselves are engaging in practices that are harmful, exploitative, or possibly criminal.

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