Working in the Shadows

Georgetown professor Denise Brennan examines forced labor trafficking in the U.S.

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President Obama called the fight against human trafficking “one of the great human rights causes of our time” and doubled down on efforts, which have been ongoing since 2000, to combat it. But 14 years after the passage of landmark anti-trafficking legislation, eradication of this form of exploitation remains elusive. In “Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States,” Denise Brennan, chair of the department of anthropology at Georgetown University, uses a decade of field work to explain human trafficking and to identify its causes. She recently spoke to U.S. News about misconceptions that have caused setbacks and what she says needs to be done to protect the vulnerable. Excerpts:

How would you define trafficking?

Trafficking is [the] exploitation of migrant workers. The U.S. [government] defines trafficking as “force, fraud and coercion,” and that’s set out in a piece of legislation, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, that was passed in 2000. It’s a narrow definition of exploitation, and few can meet it. The TVPA allows for 5,000 T visas [which allow victims of human trafficking to remain in the U.S.] to be given every year. And in the 14 years since the legislation passed, we have given under 4,000. I consider the 11 million individuals working without legal status in the country to be at risk for exploitation, and I think of them in a kind of labor purgatory – conditions that are almost trafficking. We don’t offer protections for them.

President Obama has used the term “modern-day slavery.” How is trafficking in the U.S. different from slavery?

This is not slavery. Slavery is not the law of the land in the U.S. There are not fugitive slave courts or patrols. A more fitting historical reference would be modern-day sweat shops.

Who is trafficked?

I met people who were trafficked from all over the world into a range of labor sectors. They have different levels of education. We can’t say that only the poorest and most marginalized individuals are trafficked. In fact, these individuals often are incredibly resourceful and savvy to get to the United States to work.

Do we know how many people are in forced labor in the United States?

The scope of trafficking has long been in dispute. The U.S. government has even stopped publishing figures. The last figure they published was between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals living in the U.S. in a situation of force, fraud and coercion. What’s more widespread is the exploitation of migrant workers that undergirds certain sectors of the U.S. economy.

Which industries are notorious for this?

I think you can find exploited labor in any industry, particularly in our current immigration regime where employers can threaten undocumented migrants with detention and deportation. In any of those work sites, where fear and intimidation reign, workers can experience all kinds of abuse and not report it. But I do think there are certain industries where a situation of extreme abuse and forced labor can thrive undetected. For example in agriculture, because of the isolated work places, and in domestic work.

Why do you criticise the focus of anti-trafficking efforts on sex work?

The Bush administration was masterful in conflating it with sex trafficking. It’s been difficult to shake loose that association, and sexual victimhood has become the iconic image of a trafficked person. In the name of fighting trafficking, the Bush administration launched an assault on sex workers. Sex workers [those who want to be in this industry] make very clear that, in this fight against trafficking, they’ve been the collateral damage. We lost a lot of time in the early 2000s because, really, we were only focusing on this one labor sector, while widespread abuse was going on undetected and unassisted in industries like agriculture and domestic work.

How can exploitation be prevented?

Steps can be taken to ensure that migrants who seek to work in the U.S. don’t become indebted through the recruitment process. We need to have regulation of international recruiters of temporary workers to guarantee that migrants don’t sign on to exorbitant or bogus debts. We need to revisit diplomatic immunity for those who abuse workers that they employ. We need to look at the [labor law] loophole, which doesn’t guarantee protections for agricultural workers and workers who labor in private homes, and partner with community-based organizations that do peer-to-peer outreach.

Are any existing policies making the fight against trafficking more difficult?

Simply put, we can’t have 11 million individuals working in the shadows, fearing law enforcement, and think that we’re actually going to fight trafficking. Our policies, such as the Secure Communities program, which empowers local law enforcement to function as immigration control, silences migrants from coming forward. It’s in this environment of fear that migrants are not reporting exploitative situations that could tip into forced labor.