By Maddie Lerum & Regina Bernadin
When it comes to research studies on labor trafficking within the United States, a majority of existing research literature is focused on immigrant victims—those who come to the U.S. through legal channels (e.g., H2A/H2B visas) as well as undocumented immigrants. Though incredibly important populations to study, the experience of United States citizen victims of labor trafficking flies well below the radar. The hidden nature of labor trafficking and misconception of all human trafficking as sex trafficking may all play a role in the lack of research on U.S. citizen victims. As such, researchers Dank et al. (2021) set out to uncover this phenomenon in their exploratory study, which seeks to understand how United States citizens may experience certain forms of labor trafficking victimization, any “personal and structural vulnerabilities that put U.S. citizens at risk for labor trafficking”, and “how U.S. citizen labor trafficking victims seek help or exit exploitative labor situations.” (Dank et al., 2021, p. 3).
Through an award from the National Institute of Justice, Dank et al. (2021) conducted extensive research across three locations (Anchorage, Alaska; San Diego, California; the Northeastern United States), specifically targeting individuals with diverse backgrounds and employment situations. The researchers sampled individuals at high risk for labor trafficking victimization (N=240), as well as labor trafficking service providers (N=20) who ranged in workforce development to housing services. In addition to being 15+ year old native-born, naturalized, or lawful permanent resident of the United States, participants must have experienced at least one abusive work situation to be eligible to participate in the study. Broken down into six specific categories, researchers sought to understand the range of exploitation U.S. citizen victims may have experienced. For a more thorough review of the study’s methodology, including data collection and analysis, please refer to section 02 of the study (p. 6-13).
As we were reflecting on this study, we felt it important to consider a few key takeaways:
- Sampling: Those who fit the eligibility criteria were those who had experienced abuses specifically in the workplace. Participant recruitment involved those who experienced a wide range of abuse and/or exploitative labor practices—although they didn’t specifically identify as labor trafficking survivors. Though some of the participant testaments may not technically fall within the legal definition of labor trafficking – force, fraud or coercion (TVAP, 2000) – it is important to acknowledge that exploitative labor practices and abuses in the workplace can escalate into a labor trafficking situation.
- Location and Demographics: The study analyzed three locations across the United States: Anchorage, AK; San Diego, CA; and the Northeast (New York, NY and Boston, MA). Participant demographics are diverse with 53% men, 42% women, 3% gender non-conforming, and 1% transgender; 28% Black, 26% White, 30% Native, 22% Latino, 4% Asian, and 3% Other. The selection of Anchorage as one of the sampling locations lent itself to a significant representation of Native participants in the study—a welcome change that narrows the gap to understanding the issue within Native communities. It is also important to acknowledge the vast cultural and societal differences present across the chosen locations, and recognize the opportunity to explore different locations across the United States in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this issue.
- Structure: Previous research has tended to focus on trafficking through a criminal justice lens. However, Dank et al. approached their research study differently, framing the issue of trafficking around workers’ rights, utilizing a strengths-based approach that is critical to furthering understanding of this issue.
In an area where critical information is lacking, this research study sheds light on the importance of examining labor trafficking of U.S. citizens, providing the opportunity for future research to further explore this issue. The findings of this study validate the belief that labor exploitation occurs across a continuum of experiences, showing that there is a fine line between abusive and/or exploitative labor conditions and labor trafficking. Dank et al.’s valuable and critical work is a significant gain in creating momentum for future research to address vulnerabilities that may increase individuals’ risk of experiencing labor trafficking.
Synopsis of Dank et al.’s research questions and recommendations:
With the exploitative practices and/or experiences categorized for participants to reference, the researchers dove into four main research questions that guided the creation, analysis, and interpretation of the study and its findings.
- How do U.S. citizens experience labor exploitation?
Findings show that respondents’ most frequent forms of labor exploitation were deceptions and lies (N=199, 83%) and exploitative labor practices (N=198, 83%).
- Where does labor trafficking experience fall on a continuum of labor exploitation for U.S. citizen workers?
Findings show that “respondents often experienced multiple forms of abuse that often began as labor exploitation situations and then escalated to become more abusive, crossing into clearer forms of labor trafficking” (Dank et al., p. 26).
- What personal or structural vulnerabilities put U.S. citizens at risk for labor trafficking?
The use of a mixed methods approach (quantitative and qualitative inquiry) allowed for a deeper exploration into issues that may increase an individuals’ risk of labor trafficking. As such, the following personal and/or structural vulnerabilities were illuminated in the qualitative interviews: low socioeconomic status (SES), physical and/or mental health, age and/or inexperience, previous victimization, and institutional demands (e.g., homeless services, the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, public assistance) (Dank et al., p. 35).
- What types of help do people seek when trying to change their work conditions or leave an exploitative job?
Findings show that 69% (N=152) of respondents never sought help to leave their exploitative work condition, with 31% (N=47) of those respondents believing they could handle the situation on their own (Table 9: Reason to not seek help). Additionally, respondents reported a variety of exit costs that may have prevented them from leaving their exploitative work condition. These barriers include fear of physical harm (N=58), threats from employer (N=58), fear of blacklisting from industry (N=95), shame or harassment from employer (N=82), and losing payment owed to them (N=99).
Based on the findings from interactions with both individual participants and service providers, Dank et al. concluded their study with recommendations to both inform future research on this phenomenon, as well as enhance the identification of U.S. citizen victims of labor trafficking:
- Increase education and reporting options for workers
- Improve service providers’ and law enforcement agencies competencies at recognizing labor trafficking
- Increase trust of the U.S. legal system
- Regulate and enforce existing labor protection laws
- Make labor trafficking of U.S. citizens visible
- Address victims’ underlying needs and vulnerabilities
Dank, M., Farrell, A., Zhang, S., Hughes, A., Abeyta, S., Fanarraga, I., Burke, C., & Solis, V. (2021, September). An Exploratory Study of Labor Trafficking Among U.S. Citizen Victims. Office of Justice Programs. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/302157.pdf
 1) Restrictions of physical and communicative freedom; 2) deceptions and lies; 3) exploitative labor practices; 4) intimidations, threats, and fears; 5) other intimidations, threats, and fears; 6) sexual victimization. Drawn from previous research (Zhang, 2012).