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Domestic context and approach

Labor trafficking occurs throughout the U.S. economy, but is often found in industries such as:

  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • Landscaping
  • Hotels
  • Domestic work
  • Restaurants
  • Seafood

Traffickers in the United States exploit people with little or no social safety net. They look to individuals in vulnerable situations due to economic hardship, immigration status, political instability, natural disasters and other causes. Vulnerable U.S. populations that have a heighten risk of being exploited include:

  • Undocumented workers (those who lack legal authorization to work in the United States)
  • Foreign workers in the United States on temporary employment-based visas.
  • People with substance use disorder or with mental health concerns.
  • Runaway or homeless youth and those involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
  • People experiencing poverty and economic hardship.

Employers become human traffickers when they use force or physical threats, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, fraud, or deception, or other coercive means to compel someone to work and eliminate the individual's ability to leave. Examples of labor exploitation that are labor violations and clear signs of possible labor trafficking include:

  • Lack of control over earned wages.
  • Fraudulent recruitment practices that result in wages withheld to pay off debts to the employer.
  • Unusual living conditions.
  • Workplace injuries.
  • Movements restricted.
  • Passport and/or other identity documents taken.

Civil enforcement of federal labor laws is a critical component of the government's anti-trafficking efforts. The Department of Labor investigates complaints and conducts targeted civil labor investigations involving workers in industries and sectors known to be vulnerable to labor trafficking, including agriculture, construction, landscaping, hotels, restaurants, and seafood.

Through the department's Wage and Hour Division's (WHD) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) civil enforcement, in particular, we partner with federal law enforcement agencies around the identification and referral of potential instances of trafficking in persons and the calculation of restitution amounts for victims. Because many wage and hour and workplace safety investigations take place in industries that employ vulnerable workers, the WHD and OSHA are often the first federal agencies to make contact with these workers and detect exploitation in the workplace.

The department's enforcement of federal labor laws is also critical to the fight against trafficking because it potentially addresses labor exploitation before it rises to the level of labor trafficking. We believe that the fight against labor trafficking can succeed only if its fundamental root causes are understood and addressed.

International context and approach

Just as in the United States, traffickers around the world exploit people with little or no social safety net. They look to take advantage of individuals in vulnerable situations due to economic hardship, refugee status, immigration status, political instability, natural disasters, and other factors. These vulnerable populations include:

  • In Mexico, migrant farmworkers, many of whom are of indigenous descent, are especially vulnerable to forced labor in agriculture due to low education levels, linguistic barriers, and discrimination.
  • Migrants, including unaccompanied minors, fleeing gang violence, natural disasters, and economic hardship in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are at risk of trafficking throughout their journey to countries such as the United States and Canada.
  • Throughout many countries, persons with disabilities face increased difficulty in accessing education and decent work, leaving them more vulnerable to current or future labor exploitation.
  • In addition, in some countries, birth registration and obtaining identity documents may be unduly burdensome, prohibiting families in marginalized groups from being able to access government services, social protection benefits, and decent work opportunities which puts them at increased risk of trafficking and abusive labor conditions.
  • Around the world, women and LGBTQI+ individuals are at increased risk of being subjected to commercial sexual exploitation.

The department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) is a world leader in the fight to eradicate child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking through its international research and reporting, e-tools, technical assistance, and strategic engagement. ILAB has contributed to the global reduction of nearly 86 million child laborers since 2000, including children who have been trafficked or are subjected to forced labor.

  • ILAB produces in-depth research on child labor and forced labor in more than 150 countries around the world, including individual country roadmaps to support the enforcement of labor provisions in trade agreements and preference programs.
  • ILAB develops develop innovative, publicly available electronic tools advancing supply chain transparency and social compliance for businesses and consumers.
  • ILAB designs and funds technical assistance projects around the world to address the root causes of labor exploitation, strengthen labor laws and enforcement, lift up worker voice, expand social protection and remediation services, and provide direct livelihoods support.
  • ILAB strategically engages foreign governments to reduce worker vulnerability, such as through consular agreements with countries that send large numbers of workers to the United States on temporary work visas.

Learn more on how the Department of Labor's agencies approach combating labor exploitation and human trafficking

Examples of the Department of Labor's involvement in human trafficking cases through the years

What's going on at DOL