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Labor Trafficking Cases in the United States: Understanding What Works in Identification and Response


To identify promising practices in labor trafficking identification and response in five U.S. counties that have demonstrated innovation and commitment to addressing the problem of labor trafficking. 


We reviewed law enforcement and victim service provider case records and conducted semi-structured interviews with local criminal legal system agents and victim service providers who have worked on labor trafficking cases or with labor trafficking survivors. 


This is the first study investigating what works in labor trafficking identification and response. We found that labor trafficking identification requires industry-specific strategies, partnerships, and approaches. Study sites demonstrating innovation and commitment to the issue use survivor-centered and trauma-informed approaches and emphasize case resolution objectives that prioritize the perspective and desires of the survivor over traditionally desired criminal justice outcomes. 

Labor trafficking is a serious human rights issue in which people are forced to work against their will through violence, coercion, or fraud. Labor trafficking is difficult to identify and poorly understood compared to sex trafficking. Although there are counties throughout the United States demonstrating success in identifying and prosecuting labor trafficking cases, there has been little empirical focus on what works. Until now, we did not understand the frameworks in which labor trafficking cases are successfully identified and under which labor traffickers are brought to justice. 

In partnership with researchers from New York University, we aimed to identify promising practices in labor trafficking identification and response in five U.S. counties, which were selected for inclusion in this study because the local anti-trafficking community in each has demonstrated innovation and commitment to addressing the problem of labor trafficking. Innovative strategies included dedicated labor trafficking investigators, specialized units within country district attorneys’ offices, and a statewide multidisciplinary team approach to identify and respond to labor trafficking. We reviewed closed case records and conducted in-depth, semi structured interviews with local criminal legal system agents and victim service providers who have worked on labor trafficking cases or with labor trafficking survivors. 

Our goal was to understand how labor trafficking came to be prioritized in these jurisdictions and how the labor trafficking response is situated in the unique policy, legal, and cultural frameworks of each participating county. This project also explores the ways in which labor trafficking enforcement is understood and operationalized as distinct from sex trafficking enforcement. 

Using a multi-method strategy, including stakeholder interviews and case file review, we addressed three primary questions:

  1. Are there patterns in the characteristics of labor trafficking cases identified by law enforcement at the state and local level?
  2. How does the identification and investigation of labor trafficking cases differ from that of sex trafficking cases in terms of case characteristics, collaboration within and among agencies, case resolutions, and case outcomes?
  3. What are the features of successful labor trafficking investigations?

Patterns in Identified Labor Trafficking Cases

Many groups of people are susceptible to labor trafficking. Despite common stereotypes, we found that labor exploitation is not limited to semi-skilled foreign nationals. For example, interviewees described cases involving engineers, attorneys, and nurses. However, study participants did identify a few specific susceptibilities to labor trafficking victimization, including immigrant status (e.g., workers with guestworker visas or without work authorization), limited English proficiency, and intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Our study found that perpetrators of trafficking are similarly varied and include small and large business owners, subcontractors and labor brokers, and family members and others close to the victims. Interviewees described exploitation occurring in a wide range of industries, including construction, domestic work, restaurants and food service, agriculture and animal husbandry, hotels and hospitality, factories and manufacturing, carnivals, commercial sex, and others. Traffickers use a variety of exploitation tactics, ranging from physical and sexual abuse to broken promises.

Differences Between Sex and Labor Trafficking Response

Our study concludes that identifying labor trafficking is difficult and requires industry-specific strategies, partnerships, and approaches. Service providers have been more successful than law enforcement at identifying labor trafficking cases. Applying a victim-centered approach, service providers do not bring a labor trafficking case to law enforcement unless the victim desires criminal legal system intervention, whereas sex trafficking cases are often initially identified by law enforcement.

Challenges to labor trafficking identification may be due to a lack of screening tools or low prioritization by the public, which feels more deeply for people who have experienced sex trafficking. We found that, because labor trafficking charges are hard to prove and difficult for juries to understand, prosecutors rely more on statutes for related crimes to hold perpetrators accountable. Finally, we found that, in labor trafficking cases, civil remedies are often pursued rather than criminal remedies. 

Features of Labor Successful Labor Trafficking Cases

This study also considered the features of successful labor trafficking investigations and found that they require prioritization, collaboration, adequate policies, a survivor-centered response, and open-mindedness to alternative case resolutions. Prioritization requires having at least one law enforcement champion and buy-in from government officials as well as an investment in task forces that prioritize labor trafficking and the allocation of resources for broad education and outreach efforts. Collaboration involves building and maintaining trust with the community, organizations that interact with populations susceptible to labor trafficking, and local task forces. 

We found that sites that successfully identify labor trafficking often approach labor trafficking policies as part of a continuum of labor abuses and fully utilize existing resources and laws. These sites also prioritize meeting the needs of survivors even if that means not pursuing criminal charges against their perpetrators. Finally, they consider case resolution objectives other than traditional criminal legal outcomes (e.g., arrests and prosecutions) such as restitution of unpaid wages, work authorization, and other resources that prioritize survivors’ needs.

The Future of Labor Trafficking Identification and Response

Our study is the first study of effective labor trafficking identification and investigations in the United States, serving as a starting point for future research on successful strategies to better address and mitigate this crime and to bring justice to people who experience labor trafficking exploitation. The approaches and practices examined here can be considered in other jurisdictions throughout the country and modified based on local resources and capacity. Ultimately, we hope that policymakers, service providers, and law enforcement feel empowered to employ these strategies in their own local efforts to combat labor trafficking.

Read the full report and our recommendations for departments of labor and other labor regulatory agencies.

Learn more about RTI's research on human trafficking.