End Worker Exploitation to End Human Trafficking

Authored by Solidarity Center

Human trafficking is one of the worst forms of worker abuse, and is linked to various forms of labor exploitation including forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude and other types of compelled service. Trafficking for labor exploitation occurs globally and across economic sectors. US and international definitions of human trafficking clearly include forced labor, but public understanding of human trafficking is often limited to forced prostitution or commercial sexual exploitation. Consequently, victims of trafficking for labor exploitation go unidentified and unassisted. Immigration officials regularly misidentify trafficked migrant workers as undocumented workers and deport them, while police and labor inspectors fail to recognize involuntary servitude or debt bondage in sectors such as agriculture, domestic work, construction and other sectors as human trafficking, and instead see labor rights abuses that do not require urgent intervention.

Protecting the rights of all workers is key to ending human trafficking. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), “Where labor standards are rigorously adhered to, workers are well unionized and labor laws are monitored and enforced – for all workers, indigenous or migrant – the demand for trafficked people and services is likely to be low.” For example, in Liberia, freedom of association for rubber plantation workers directly led to the elimination of forced and child labor on a plantation when workers organized the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) and successfully negotiated higher wages, manageable production quotas, and improvements in working conditions.  The US Department of Labor honored the union’s achievement with a 2010 award recognizing FAWUL’s extraordinary efforts to eliminate child labor.

To eradicate human trafficking, the US must address forced labor by promoting worker rights and combatting the root causes of worker exploitation.

According to the ILO1:

  • Forced labor is the most prevalent form of human trafficking.

  • Of 21 million people who are victims of forced labor globally, 18.7 million (90 %) are exploited in the private sector by individuals or businesses. Of those, 14.2 million (68%) are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities, like agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing (versus 22% in forced sexual exploitation)

  • 55% of victims of forced labor are women and girls

  • 74% (15.4 million) of victims are adults age 18 years and over

Upcoming Opportunities

The 2017 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Authorization Act (TVPRA) is an opportunity to improve the US approach to human trafficking to better address forced labor. TVPRA can be strengthened to include directives to agencies on programming, funding, and reporting requirements to address the root causes of vulnerability to human trafficking, including through promotion of worker rights.

Build on successful Congressional action in 2016 to repeal the “consumptive demand loophole” in the 1930 Tariff Act through aggressive enforcement of the law’s forced labor provisions. To effectively enforce the law, the US must improve inter-agency coordination on enforcement, utilizing both civil and criminal tools. DHS Custom and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) units must strictly enforce the prohibition on the importation of goods into the U.S. made with forced or child labor, including through self- initiation of cases. The US must promulgate, with significant civil society input, new regulations and practices on this provision of the Act.

Restore the integrity of the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP report) by ensuring that country tier rankings and narratives are delinked from political considerations. The U.S. Department of State should take internal measures to delink political considerations from decisions on tier rankings of countries, and publicly disclose how it determines particular Tier rankings.  For countries listed on Tier 3 or the Tier 2-Watch List, the US should suspend trade benefits pending demonstrable, concrete steps to address human trafficking.

Support robust US foreign assistance programs to combat human trafficking alongside the End Modern Slavery Initiative (EMSI) EMSI and other public-private partnerships to end human trafficking must be accompanied by strong US government leadership to ensure a holistic approach to addressing forced labor including prevention strategies that respond to root causes of trafficking, along with protection of victims and prosecution of traffickers. The US should increase foreign assistance funding for approaches that ensure safe migration for workers (pre- and post-departure training for workers on their rights in countries of destination, enforcement of labor standards, extension of meaningful whistleblower protections to trafficked workers, and strengthening the enabling environment for worker rights and access to justice) and programs to prevent human trafficking through labor law strengthening and enforcement. Public-private initiatives like EMSI must not be funded by defunding other human rights priorities such as worker rights and eliminating gender-based violence, and must be integrated into other US development approaches, such as the promotion of democracy, human rights, and governance.

Promote the US government policy of no fees to migrant workers in the recruitment process. Payment of recruitment fees increases workers’ vulnerability to debt bondage. The US government should continue to expand its global leadership in promoting the policy of no recruitment fees to migrant workers to partner governments in bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as in the development of the United Nation’s Global Compact on Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration, as well as in its own policies, procurement, and development programs.



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