Labor Day: The Unseen Victims of Forced Labor in the U.S.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a day most look forward to.  It’s often thought of as the official end of summer, usually spent squeezing in the last of warm-weather activities: backyard parties with friends, lounging by the pool, a quick getaway.  Labor Day was first celebrated on September 5, 1882, to recognize the contributions of American workers and celebrate those who fought for workers’ rights in the late 19th century.  Their dedication to the cause is why many of the labor rights we enjoy today, such as a standardized work week, safe work conditions, paid time off, and sick leave.  Sadly, a population among us doesn’t enjoy these rights and is subject to forced labor.  

The International Labour Organization defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”  While the media heavily focuses on the sex trade when addressing human trafficking, forced labor is common in low-wage industries, such as manufacturing, hospitality, agriculture, and domestic services. According to the Polaris Project, there are believed to be more instances of forced labor than sex trafficking worldwide. Like sex trafficking, victims of forced labor are often subjected to physical and emotional abuse, threats, and manipulation to remain under the control of their traffickers.  Immigrants are often at the greatest risk due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with the laws and rights in the United States, and a lack of lawful immigration status.  Youth in foster care, runaway youth, the homeless, and the mentally ill are also at greater risk of being trafficked into forced labor.

While the Federal Government is taking steps to combat all forms of human trafficking, forced labor is a product of more complex societal issues, including immigration reform, racial and gender discrimination, and the desire to buy goods for less. According to the Human Trafficking Legal Center, the U.S. imports up to $144 billion of goods made using forced labor, mostly electronics and clothing.  Over half of the forced labor risk in the United States is found in food production and processing.

What can we, as citizens, do to combat the horror of forced labor?  Reading this article is a start – being aware that forced labor happens in the U.S., and not just in faraway places, can help to bring attention to the issue.  Some other ways to help include:

Be aware of the signs: Trafficking victims can appear isolated, scared, malnourished, or injured.  They often lack identification, live at their place of work, and offer goods or services priced below general market rates. If you encounter someone and something seems off, don’t ignore your gut instincts. The DHS Blue Campaign offers great resources for recognizing labor trafficking.  Understanding the signs can save a life.

Be a conscientious consumer: The U.S. Department of Labor found 159 goods from 78 countries were produced by child and forced labor.  Familiarize yourself with the list and take a stand to reject purchasing products from regions known for using forced labor.

Head to the ballot box: Educate yourself on pending initiatives and reforms that affect the trafficking market.  Vote people into office who prioritize addressing human trafficking and call on current legislators to join the fight.

Support the mission: Many organizations are dedicated to stamping out all forms of human trafficking.  Support them in any way you can.  Life Preservers Project is dedicated to eradicating human trafficking through fundraising, creative programming, and collaborating with other organizations and agencies providing direct services to victims.  Support us by spreading our message.