The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States, a prevalence of 1.3 victims of modern slavery for every thousand in the country.
Although multiple government agencies collect data on victims of modern slavery, the United States does not provide one definitive set of statistics on identified victims. This is largely due to federal privacy laws and agency policies that restrict the sharing of personally identifiable information. In 2017, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act was introduced in the United States Senate and was passed to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.1 If enacted, this bipartisan legislation will help to synchronise federal data management systems on many issues, including human trafficking.
In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of 8,524 suspected human trafficking cases.2 A case corresponds to a situation of human trafficking and can include one or multiple potential victims. The Human Trafficking Institute reports that there were 783 active criminal and civil human trafficking cases in 2017 involving 1,930 defendants; approximately 89 percent of these cases were criminal cases and 11 percent were civil suits. In 2017, the United States government initiated 216 new criminal sex trafficking cases and 14 new criminal labour trafficking cases.3
While the United States has not generated a national estimate of modern slavery, there are significant advances occurring at the city and state levels with the application of Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE). MSE involves the comparison of multiple concurrent administrative lists of identifiable modern slavery victim data to estimate the total population of victims in a given context. Researchers have effectively measured the number of modern slavery victims in New Orleans, Louisiana by employing MSE4 and researchers and other stakeholders in states such as Georgia, Texas, and Maryland are considering how this technique may be implemented at the state-level.
Forced labour occurs in many contexts in the United States. In 2016, out of 1,067 potential labour trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the largest number involved domestic work (197), agriculture and farm work (125), travelling sales crews (100), restaurant or food services (74), and health and beauty services (45), among others.5
The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates that there were approximately two million domestic workers in the United States in 2017.6 Many of these individuals are migrant women and women of colour.7 Some domestic workers experience labour conditions that are reflective of modern slavery. Of the 110 cases of modern slavery identified by National Domestic Worker Alliance affiliated organisations in a 2017 report, 85 percent of victims reported having pay withheld or being paid well below minimum wage, and 80 percent were tricked with false or otherwise deceptive contracts.8 Additionally, 66 percent of victims reported having experienced physical or sexual abuse, either by their employer or a family member of their employer, and 78 percent were threatened by deportation by their employers if they complained. 9
Forced labour still occurs in agriculture. Up to 30 percent of farmworker families living below the federal poverty line, with farmworkers earning an average US$15,000 to US$17,000 per annum. Some of these experience situations of modern slavery where they are held against their will, through the use or threat of violence, and forced to work for little or no money.10 The majority of agricultural workers are male, in their 20s or 30s, and of Hispanic ethnicity, although there has been a decrease in the proportions of those who are foreign-born in recent years.11 Many migrant workers are undocumented, meaning they live in fear that any complaint against their employer would lead to their deportation.12
Those working in travelling sales crews have also reported instances of modern slavery. Unemployed young people are targeted by recruiters who promise high salaries and the opportunity to travel.13 However, once part of these travelling sales crews, these individuals are subject to exploitation, including withholding of earnings and working long hours, as well as violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abandonment in unfamiliar cities.14 Workers are prevented from leaving through a combination of fraud, force and coercion, with managers controlling all aspects of their crew’s lives while they are on the road, including establishing “cult-like” peer pressure and controlling after-hours activity.15
State-imposed forced labour
Several recent legal cases against The GEO Group, Inc. have brought to light allegations of forced labour in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security. There are currently three allegations of forced labour of detainees against the Northwest Detention Center in Washington,16 the Colorado’s Aurora Detention Facility,17 and the California’s Adelanto Detention Center.18 The Washington State Attorney General filed a lawsuit against The GEO Group, Inc. asking the court to order the company to comply with minimum wage laws and forfeit the profits earned by underpaying detained individuals in the Northwest Detention Center. The Raul Novoa vs. The GEO Group Inc. case states that the policies and practices of forcing and coercing detainees to perform labour at subminimum wages violate the California minimum wage law, the California Unfair Competition Law, state trafficking laws, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibit forced labour.19 The Menocal et. al. vs. The GEO Group, Inc. case alleges that current and former civil immigration detainees incarcerated and employed by the GEO Group, Inc. were unlawfully used to clean, maintain, and operate the detention facility.20 Furthermore, these cases allege that the GEO Group, Inc. pays and paid detainees as little as US$1 per day, or no wages at all for their labour.21
While the 13th amendment to the US Constitution provides that slavery and involuntary servitude can be used as a punishment for a crime where the affected party has been duly convicted, the use of compulsory prison labour in administrative detention for the benefit of private individuals, companies or associations, as alleged against The GEO Group, meets the ILO typology of state-imposed forced labour utilised in the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery.22
Forced sexual exploitation of adults and children
Forced sexual exploitation occurs across the United States. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported call data, 5,591 potential cases of sex trafficking were reported in 2016. These reports referred to the identification of potential victims in hotels/ motels (588), commercial front brothels (559), online (411), in residential areas (367) and in the street (234), and in escort or delivery services (230), among others.23
The 2017 Federal Human Trafficking Report found that active criminal cases overwhelmingly involved sex trafficking (95.1 percent). Of the 661 active sex trafficking cases in 2017, 65.8 percent involved child victims. The majority of trafficking operations (84.3 percent) used the Internet to solicit purchasers for sexual services, with backpage.com, Facebook, and Craiglist.com, among others, being the most commonly cited websites.24 Traffickers also often tend to be known to their victims. In 2017, 14.4 percent of active criminal labour and sex trafficking cases involved “defendants who trafficked their children, spouses, intimate partners, siblings, or other family members.”25
Forced sexual exploitation in massage parlours highlights the particular vulnerabilities of foreign nationals to modern slavery in the United States. A report released in early 2018 by Polaris estimates that there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the United States with total annual revenue of US$2.5 billion.26 Women exploited in massage parlours tend to be recently arrived migrants from China or South Korea. They are typically mothers in their mid-30s to late 50s, who have received no higher than a high school level education, have limited English language skills, and face financial burdens.27 Similar to domestic work trafficking victims, trafficking victims from massage parlours often work excessive hours and are threatened with arrest or deportation if they try to leave. Threats to tell their families and friends in their home country that they are working in the commercial sex industry are also used to control victims. 28
In 2011, Tahirih Justice Center conducted a web-based survey of over 500 service providers, organisations, and agencies that may have encountered forced and early marriage. Survey respondents identified as many as 3,000 forced and early marriage cases between April 2009 and April 2011.29 Similarly, a study on child marriage published in 2011 analysed data from a 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions and determined that the prevalence of child marriage among women in the United States was 8.9 percent, meaning that over 9.4 million US women were married at age 16 or younger.30 Those who were married at a young age in the survey included people of colour and Indigenous populations, and those who had low educational levels, low income, and were living in the south and rural areas of the United States.31 The rates of psychiatric disorders were high for women who married as children,32 while there are negative effects on health, education, and an increased likelihood of domestic violence.33 Forced marriage and child marriage are understudied problems within the United States and more research must be conducted into their drivers.
Imported products at risk of modern slavery
While modern slavery clearly occurs within the United States, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that the United States, like many other countries globally, will also be exposed to the risk of modern slavery through the products it imports. Policymakers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk and take responsibility for it. Table 1 below highlights the top five products (according to US$ value, per annum) imported by the United States that are at risk of being produced under conditions of modern slavery.34
Table 1Imports of products at risk of modern slavery to the United States
|Product at risk of modern slavery||Import value|
(in thousands of US$)
Laptops, computers, and mobile phones
Apparel and clothing accessories
Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam
|China, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand|
Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana
The US imports over US$90 billion worth of laptops, computers, and mobile phones from China and Malaysia, which amounts to 70 percent of the US’ overall imports of these products. The electronics industries in both these countries are considered to be at risk of using modern slavery in the production of these goods. Garments up to a value of US$47 billion are annually imported by the US from countries and industries considered at risk of using modern slavery in the production of clothing. The US also imports fish and cocoa from industries at risk of modern slavery, at a value of more than US$3 billion and US$1 billion respectively. Timber from Brazil and Peru is the fifth largest import by value through which the US may import risk of modern slavery.
Migrants, and especially migrant women and children, are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery in the United States due to their “lower levels of education, inability to speak English, immigration status, and lack of familiarity with U.S. employment protections. Further they are vulnerable because they often work in jobs that are hidden from the public view and unregulated by the government.”35 Industries that are particularly at-risk for labour exploitation in the United States include domestic servitude, agriculture, fishing, carnival workers, and travelling sales crews, among others. Those working in the agriculture sector are vulnerable due to insecure immigration status, debt created from payment of transportation and recruitment fees, isolation, poverty, and a lack of strong labour protections.36
Increasingly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery.37 A survey of service providers conducted by Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), Freedom Network USA, and Polaris in 2017 found that new immigration enforcement policies and practices are increasing their clients’ vulnerability to human trafficking.38 Nearly 70 percent of service providers, for example, believe that survivors will remain with their traffickers longer given the recent political shift, with survivors highlighting their concerns that they will not be believed and then will be arrested, detained, or deported.39
Children are a particularly vulnerable group to modern slavery in the United States, particularly those outside of a supportive environment.40 Runaway and homeless young people without a support network can become vulnerable to exploitation.41 This vulnerability can increase once they enter the child welfare system, with local studies showing there is a high incidence of trafficked children and young people who have been part of the child welfare system.42 This is in part due to the fact that those in the system are the victims of abuse, which makes them more susceptible to exploitation, including sexual exploitation. Traffickers have been known to target children and young people transitioning out of foster care, taking advantage of the individual’s low self-esteem and history of abuse.43 LGBTQI individuals, including children, experience a higher rate of vulnerability to sex trafficking, which stems from family rejection, abandonment, or emotional and physical abuse. LQBTQI young people represent high numbers of those who are homeless and are targeted by traffickers.44 These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by systemic discrimination in education, health care and justice systems.45 In states where there is no minimum age for marriage, girls are also vulnerable to forced marriage, in part due to the perception that an early marriage is in the girl’s best interest, especially if the child is pregnant.46
Adults and children who have survived violence and trauma remain vulnerable to future exploitation. Traffickers often target and exploit these vulnerabilities in “victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war and conflict, or social discrimination.”47 Male victims of exploitation have difficulty locating shelters and assistance and can remain vulnerable to trafficking and further abuse as well. Many male victims have difficulty identifying as victims and can believe that the exploitation and abuse that they have endured is a result of “normal consequences of labour migration.”48
Response to modern slavery
United States Federal Law criminalises trafficking in persons, which includes both sex trafficking and forced labour. Forced labour (section 1589), trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labour, (section 1590), and sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion (section 1591) are prohibited under Chapter 77, Title 18 of the US Criminal Code.49 In addition, all US states and territories have criminal statutes that address trafficking in persons. Forced marriage is not illegal at the federal level. Only eight US states, plus Washington, D.C. and the US Virgin Islands, have specific criminal laws against forced marriage.50
While all states set 18 or older as the minimum age for marriage without parental consent, many states allow marriage at a younger age with parental consent; 25 states set no minimum age limit.51 This has encouraged some lawmakers to increase the minimum age for marriage in several states in the United States,52 with Virginia becoming the first state to limit marriage to adults age 18 or older, and Texas and New York following suit in 2017.53
The US Federal government funds the National Human Trafficking Hotline operated by Polaris that provides a free multilingual hotline and texting service for those seeking to report suspected incidents of modern slavery or to receive assistance in leaving a situation of modern slavery.54 These victims are encouraged to participate in the legal system, and Federal Law recognises that victims should not be treated as criminals for conduct committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking. There are also free legal services for victims of modern slavery and there is a legal framework that requires restitution or compensation be sought for victims of modern slavery.55
There are, however, reports that victims do face arrest for crimes committed while in modern slavery. Children in particular are vulnerable to arrest for commercial sexual exploitation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2014, 714 children were arrested for prostitution and commercialised vice offences.56 Only 23 states and District of Colombia prohibit the criminalisation of minors for prostitution, and two of those states limit that protection to minors under 16.57 There have been increased efforts in recent years to improve the identification of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation within the child welfare system, but there remains a need for enhanced screenings for victims and protections within the criminal justice system.58
The United States anti-trafficking response structure has been in place since 2000, comprising of over 15 federal agencies that actively combat human trafficking and coordinate through the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (the PITF). The government has a strategic action plan on victim services, against which it releases annual status reports.59 However, gaps are reported in services for victims of trafficking, with men, boys and LGBTQI individuals finding it difficult to access services.60 A study conducted in 2017 highlighted challenges in human trafficking survivor mental health service delivery, including complex needs, limited service provider capacity, and a fragmented multisector response.61
Labour inspections are conducted in the informal sector, such as construction and agriculture, and can be requested through the US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. This division is charged with upholding fair employment and labour standards without consideration of legal or documentation status of the affected persons.62 However, there have been calls for increased oversight of the informal sector, including begging and family businesses, to be able to better identify victims.63
Recent policy shifts in the United States to increase immigration enforcement is believed by leading human rights groups, such as Human Rights First, to deter modern slavery victims and exploited workers from seeking help due to their fear of deportation to their home countries.64 The Executive Order on Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States65 (Executive Order on Public Safety) issued on January 25, 2017 and the Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking66 issued on February 10, 2017 are highlighted as being particularly problematic. In testimony in front of the United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing, a representative of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) gave poignant remarks about how some of the recent Trump Administration Executive Orders may adversely affect already vulnerable populations to modern slavery. For example, the Executive Order on Public Safety has placed anti-slavery service providers in the position of facing repercussions for serving undocumented migrant victims of crime, including slavery victims.67 These concerns were also extended to the federal penalties levied against “sanctuary jurisdictions”, or cities that have expressly limited their formal compliance of federal immigration enforcement.68 With these two restrictions, ATEST is concerned that, “there could simply be nowhere for immigrant trafficking victims to turn for basic necessities like food, shelter and access to medical services after fleeing from trafficking.”69 Secondly, the Executive Order on International Trafficking is interpreted to demonstrate a law enforcement-focused approach to anti-trafficking efforts as opposed to a victim-centred approach, which advocates believe will, “undermine victims’ confidence in those local, state and federal institutions whose core mission is to prevent crime and protect victims.”70 This is confirmed by a 2017 survey of service providers which found that 82 percent of those who replied to the survey affirm that some survivors have shared concerns about contacting the police, and that these concerns may also have an impact on survivors’ willingness to assert their legal rights in civil, criminal and immigration court.71
Response to modern slavery in supply chains
The Department of Labor’s annual list of products that have been mined, produced, or manufactured by forced or indentured child labour is mandated by Executive Order 13126 of 1999, entitled Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Labor.72 This Executive Order requires all federal government contractors who provide goods identified on the Department of Labor’s annual lists to certify “they have made a good faith effort to determine whether forced or indentured child labour was used to produce the items listed.”73
The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), “Ending Trafficking in Persons,” implemented both Executive Order 13627, Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which contained Title XVII on “Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting.” These rules authorise federal agencies to terminate government contracts if any contractor or subcontractor engages in human trafficking. The FAR rule strengthens the efficacy of the United States’ long-standing policy against human trafficking in federal contracts by, among other things, prohibiting contractors and subcontractors from engaging in trafficking-related activity, such as charging workers recruitment fees, confiscating or destroying an employee’s identity documents, or using misleading or fraudulent recruitment tactics. In the case of a certain subset of contracts and subcontracts, the regulations also require certifications and compliance plans be installed for any portion of a contract or subcontract for which more than US$500,000 worth of supplies will be acquired, or services be performed, outside the United States. These compliance plan requirements do not apply to contracts for commercially available off-the-shelf items. The National Defense Authorization Act of 201374 further prevents government contractors from being associated with human trafficking by making contractors criminally liable for the actions of their subcontractors by expanding 18 USC 135175 to include work performed by a US contractor outside the United States, in addition to issues that were performed within the US.
The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) continues to impose reporting requirements on US federal agencies, such as the United States Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report,76 and the United States Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.77 The TVPA requires the US government to establish partnerships with community organisations, universities, enterprises, and others to ensure that “US citizens do not purchase products made by victims of human trafficking.”78 The findings and conclusions of these reports are often considered by the government in making economic and trade policy decisions.
Business supply chains
The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”)96 enables the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice to prosecute US companies for suspicious payments of more than $300 million to foreign entities. This is considered to be a widely enforced anti-corruption law and includes responsibility for third parties of corporations.97 The link between corruption and modern slavery is well known and is reflected in the 2012 US Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice’s “Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” that explicitly states that corruption “threatens stability and security by facilitating criminal activity within and across borders, such as the illegal trafficking of people, weapons, and drugs.”98 The Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission’s Resource Guide also requires ongoing training for corporate stakeholders, including the requirement to “evaluate whether a company has taken steps to ensure that relevant policies and procedures have been communicated throughout the organization, including through periodic training and certification for all directors, officers, relevant employees.”99 This application of anti-corruption enforcement among US companies is one example of utilising multiple approaches to audit US corporate supply chains for modern slavery.
The US Tariff Act of 1930, section 307 prohibits the import of goods produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any country, by convict, forced, or indentured labour, including forced or indentured child labour. These goods may be seized by the federal government and prevented from entering the United States. The importing entities may also face criminal investigation and prosecution.100 However, until recently, this law was still undermined by what was known as the “consumptive demand”101 loophole. This provision permitted imports to continue to enter the United States even if there was evidence of forced labour in their production if domestic production was insufficient to meet US consumer demand. This loophole was closed with the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (H.R. 644) into law.102 Since the closure of this loophole, goods such as peeled garlic, and stevia (a plant-based sweetener) and its derivatives, have been placed on active withhold release orders by the US Customs and Border Protection,103 In 2018, toys from one manufacturer in China and all cotton produced in Turkmenistan were stopped at the U.S. border through U.S. Customs and Border Control withhold release orders.104 The banning of "all Turkmenistan cotton or products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton" is significant as it is the first time that the US government has banned all forms of a particular commodity from an entire country, as opposed to banning products from specific manufacturers, thus recognising the petitions and reports submitted by Cotton Campaign members Alternative Turkmenistan News and International Labor Rights Forum, as well as the scale of forced labour in the Turkmenistan cotton sector.105
The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010106 requires that companies identifying as a retail sellers or manufacturers doing business in the state of California and with an annual global business over US$100 million must make public disclosures on their efforts to eliminate human trafficking and slavery in their supply chains, among other things. There were previous efforts to establish a federal supply chain transparency law called H.R. 3226 – Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015.107 This law would require all corporations across the US with over US$100 million in global business to publish a mandatory annual report including a disclosure on whether the corporation has taken any efforts to “identify and address conditions of forced labor, slavery, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labor within the corporation’s supply chains.”108 The passage of H.R. 3226 – Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 into law would be a valuable response to existing legislative gaps.
The government of the United States should:
- Enact federal legislation criminalising forced marriage.
- Raise minimum age for marriage, with or without parental consent to 18 in all states.
- Extend legislation prohibiting criminalisation of child victims of trafficking to all states.
Improve victim support
- Provide training and support for police, labour inspectors, and immigration officials to be able to identify victims of modern slavery and connect these individuals with services.
- Increase resources and capacity building for services providers, in particular increasing resources for services for men, boys and LGBTQI individuals.
- Improve multisector collaboration and provide human trafficking specific training for mental health professionals.
Strengthen coordination and transparency
- Support the development of a central repository of modern slavery through standardisation data collection to make national prevalence estimation more feasible in the United States context by improving data administration systems across government agencies.
- Support efforts to implement Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE), which is the comparison of multiple concurrent administrative lists of identifiable modern slavery victim data to estimate the total population of slavery victims in a given context.
- Support Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) at the Federal Level in the United States
- Support Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE) at the U.S. State and Local Level
- In the event that coordination at the federal agency level is not immediately actionable, support the implementation of state and local Multiple Systems Estimation efforts in key states or cities where victim data is most readily available, and the data infrastructure is sufficiently advanced.
- Support state MSE efforts through federal, state, and local law enforcement mandates to participate and share information with trusted and key stakeholders.
- Provide additional research funding to further identify the possible shortcomings and strengths of these methods.
- Support other national prevalence estimates in the United States
- Generally, increase available federal funding for prevalence estimates at the local, state, and federal levels as well as increase requirements for baseline prevalence data reporting among government agencies and federally funded initiatives.
Address risk factors
- Enforce core labour laws and labour standards for most vulnerable workers, including undocumented or seasonal workers in the United States from Latin and Central America.
- Provide additional regulatory support and labour inspections to all industries, including commercial sex work, seasonal agricultural work, and domestic work industries to increase the opportunities to identify victims of modern slavery.
- Revoke Executive Order on Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States109 (Executive Order on Public Safety) issued on January 25, 2017 and the Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking110 issued on February 10, 2017.
Eradicate modern slavery from the economy
- Enact a federal supply chains transparency law, at a minimum, extending the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act to the whole of the US. This federal supply chain law should also include a central registry of businesses and repository of supply chain statements and should cover both government and business transparency.
- Increase federal funding and resources for Customs and Border Protection to enforce Section 307 of the Tariff Act to stop shipments of goods produced with forced labour at US borders.