More From Alder's Ledge

September 23, 2014

Labour Trafficking In America

(Part of our ongoing discussion on Human Trafficking)

In Series One, Alders Ledge outlined its working definition of the term “human trafficking” as a reference for future articles in the series, and the discussion now turns to “labor trafficking” in the United States. This is, perhaps, the type of slavery with which most Americans are familiar, as it is studied in U.S. and American History classes. For purposes of our discussion, “labor trafficking” shall mean:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons; by means of the threat, use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, through abuse of power or exploitation of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another for the purpose of exploiting labor and/or services. (UNODC, 2014)

It is vitally important for Americans, and the world, to understand that slavery NEVER ended in the United States, and history textbooks rarely frame discussions around this fact. Instead they focus on traditional notions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which did nothing to actually stop the exploitation of labor and services in the country. We’ll examine the various ways in which exploited labor and/or services continued, post-Proclamation, through today.


Post-reconstruction saw Black Americans subjugated to slavery via criminalization, through race-based laws known as The Black Codes. Prisoners were subjected to slave labor for profit by companies, prison wardens, and others with stakeholder-status in having a supply of free or nearly-free labor. Sharecropping introduced another form of exploitation. While a study of the history of corrections, Black Codes, and sharecropping are easily identifiable as forms of labor trafficking, as defined by UNODC, many fail to make the connection: slavery did not, literally, end after the Civil War. Laws were specifically written to criminalize only the actions of Black people…laws that were far too easy for any “freed” Black to “break.” Violating such laws landed former slaves in prison, where they were subjected to slave labor, once again. With the decline and eventual eradication of sharecropping by the 1960s, other forms of peonage, slavery, and exploitation gripped the country, and the world.


When Americans think “slavery,” the images that come to mind are those depicted above. While it is important to note that non-Blacks were also subjected to indentured servitude in the founding of America, historically, the vast majority of slavery centered on Blacks and agriculture. As agriculture declined, new methods of exploitation began to flourish, a much more “inclusive” slavery that sought to take advantage of human bodies, regardless of color. However, the “new” forms of labor trafficking still predominantly exploit minorities, especially immigrants, women, and children. While we observe that some forms of labor trafficking affect legal and illegal immigrant residents, it is important to note that human trafficking affects native-born citizens, as well. This is not an "immigrant" issue. This is a global human rights issue.
The Modern Face of Labor Trafficking in the USA
While 59% of labor trafficking is not found in the agriculture sector, it continues to proliferate in the industry, especially among migrant and seasonal farm workers. Nannies and housekeepers (think: Mammy figures in slave days of the past) and other domestic positions provide a ripe climate for exploitation. While sex trafficking will be highlighted in a future series, it is important to mention here that hostess and strip clubs are also rife with slave labor, outside of the traditional notions of forced prostitution (sex work). The actual performances, duties, and dancing (the labor) can be exploited, with or without forced sexual contact with customers (Alders Ledge does not conflate voluntary sex work with human trafficking, a discussion more appropriate for the upcoming series on sex trafficking).

The dining and food service industry provides a haven for traffickers, who force their victims to cook, clean, stock, and wait tables for little or no pay, often while under the complete control of their “handlers,” while living in controlled congregate housing. In addition, the manufacturing of clothing and foodstuffs also provide avenues for forced, coerced, and under/no-paid labor. With over 1.5 million employees in the hospitality industry, the United States has seen a rise in traffickers’ exploitation of room attendants, other hospitality-centered positions, even casino workers. Ever wonder about the knocks on the door by young people selling products, like magazine subscriptions? Many such peddling rings exploit the door-to-door market by denying food and accommodations to those who fail to make their quotas, even abandoning “employees,” leaving them penniless and without transportation in unknown cities. In short, ANY industry with a demand for cheap labor and little-to-no oversight is ripe for labor trafficking, including group care homes, construction, and landscaping.


Most Americans directly benefit from modern-slavery. Everyone eats, and most do not grow their own food. Many people dine out and stay in hotels, and we all live in, or travel to, various constructed buildings. Trafficking touches our lives in ways we may not have considered before. Anti-immigrant adherents may not care about the abuses of immigrant populations, rationalizing that “they ought not to be here, in the first place.” Hostess/stripper clubs are rife with “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming,” and the voices of the exploited, the trafficked, are often silenced under the belief that these women and girls actively choose to earn a living “on their backs” and should “know the consequences” of their profession. When presented with evidence of force, victim-blaming still occurs: “They were stupid if they couldn’t see it;” “Why didn’t they just runaway or call police?” These judgments do not address the criminals who force and/or kidnap their way into exploiting human bodies. Finally, notice the eerie silence about slavery in these arguments. There is no acknowledgment that slavery still exists, and it resolves the cognitive dissonance felt when one realizes the benefits they unwittingly receive via trafficking. 



Obviously, a single blog post cannot provide the space for nuance on such a large, complex topic. Our purpose is to bring awareness and empower you to take action. Below are suggested readings for those interested in a deeper understanding of modern labor trafficking in the United States.

  • Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States (2014). See on Amazon.
  • Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (2008) See on Amazon.
  • The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (2010). See on Amazon.
  • The Coercion of Trafficked Workers (2011). See Online.