Human Trafficking and Foreign-born Workers

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

As we recognize National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, many of the essential workers who put food on our tables, keep us healthy, and care for our loved ones continue to be at risk of exploitation. Many foreign-born essential workers, particularly those on temporary worker visas or those lacking work authorization, are victims of wage theft or survivors of human trafficking with few options for leaving those abusive circumstances. Perpetrators traffic individuals into agriculture, restaurant, factory, constructiondomestic, and other work, industries in which enforcement of labor protections needs vast improvement.

These industries largely comprise immigrants. An estimated 69 percent of immigrants in the U.S. labor force and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential workers. Perpetrators also traffic individuals into sex work, an unregulated industry where law enforcement may fail to distinguish between transactions among consenting adults and conditions involving force, fraud, or coercion.

The federal government can combat these abuses and help protect immigrant workers by, among other actions: providing the same protections for domestic and agricultural workers that are enjoyed by other workers; allowing migrant workers to change employers so they are not tied to the employer that originally sponsored their visa; adequately resourcing the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration so they can enforce labor and health and safety protections; decriminalizing sex work so trafficked sex workers can seek justice without fear of prosecution; and creating mechanisms to hold companies accountable for exploitation that occurs in their supply chains.

Philanthropy also has a role to play in combating human trafficking. Funders can:

  • Resource leaders in the anti-trafficking field to support approaches that are informed by survivors’ experiences.
  • Rather than supporting efforts that focus on law enforcement tactics, invest in survivor-led initiatives that seek to protect workers, regardless of industry.
  • Expand the capacity of organizations that assist trafficking survivors, including legal services providers working to protect survivors from exploitation and bring their traffickers to justice.

In 2022, GCIR aims to provide more visibility into human trafficking, and we will soon be holding a workshop on protecting the rights of immigrant workers. In the meantime, see our August 2021 webinar, Migrant Workers and Economic Justice, for recommendations on preventing the trafficking and exploitation of immigrant workers.