When Nita Belles first researched human trafficking, she focused on sex trafficking – the exploitation of young people, mostly girls, for the sexual gratification of others.
But as she delved into her studies, Belles – founder of the anti-trafficking group In Our Backyard – also learned about another widespread type of exploitation: labor trafficking.
“The definition for labor trafficking is ‘ using force, fraud or coercion to recruit, harbor, transport, obtain or employ a person for labor or services in involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery,’ “ Belles says. “In short, it’s forced labor.”
Americans think of slavery as a scourge that vanished from our shores long ago. Belles, however, says the modern version is alive and well not only in the developing world, but in the United States.
“It takes different forms, but it happens all over the country, from urban areas to middle-class and upper-middle class neighborhoods,” Belles says. “It can happen in households, with a housekeeper or a nanny who might be held against her will in domestic servitude. It can happen in hotels, some of them nicer hotels. It can happen in agricultural settings or in factories. It can happen in nail salons, in grocery stores.
“It can even be door-to-door sales. This is sadly very common and happened in my town a few years ago: The perpetrators lured some street kids with promises of traveling, hotels and drugs for selling fake magazine subscriptions, while the traffickers pocketed the money.”
To be sure, most people working in these industries aren’t trafficking victims. And even when they are, top executives often don’t realize it. For example, Belles notes, a hotel, resort or country club seeking low-cost labor may unwittingly hire an agency that’s actually a front for slave labor.
“Any industry where people make legitimate money can also involve labor trafficking,” Belles says. “The victims usually are paid something, but very little. They’re subject to long hours, low pay, and sometimes horrible work conditions.”
Labor trafficking doesn’t simply refer to people who are in lousy jobs, Belles notes. Rather, its victims – including but not limited to immigrants – are intentionally lured into servitude by people who hold them in debt and may control nearly every aspect of their economic lives.
The victims, Belles says, are usually in what’s called “debt bondage.”
“Let’s say someone is a migrant worker. They’re charged for the roof over their head, room and board, for transportation to and from work, for toiletries, deodorant – anything. They’re charged inflated prices for everything: They may need a $3 hairbrush and be charged $20.”
The idea is to keep that person beholden to the trafficker – to keep the debt in excess of any wages.
Although debt bondage is also prevalent in sex trafficking, Belles says, the greater threat there is the psychological manipulation.
“With sex trafficking, they tend to be traumatically bonded to their captors – what’s commonly known as Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “The trafficker – basically, the pimp – will constantly beat her down with messages like, ‘This is all you’re worth,’ ‘This is what you were created to do’ or ‘I’m the only one who’s looking out for you.’ ”
Belles says it’s much easier to help free a labor-trafficking victim than a sex-trafficking victim – unless they’re a victim of both. “A lot of times, that does happen,” she says. ”People are often both labor-trafficked and sex-trafficked.”
You could run into trafficking victims in any number of places without realizing it, Belles warns.
For example, you could be in the grocery store or hardware store, Belles says, “and a foreign-born girl in domestic servitude is there with a couple who controls her. You could be in a salon where the person doing your nails won’t speak to you in English, but someone’s there doing all the talking for them.
“I’ve been in situations where I knew someone was being trafficked – there was no doubt in my mind – but they were being watched, and it would be dangerous for them if I asked them about it. What I could do was put on my best grandma face and look at this person with every bit of love I could. Then I report that to law enforcement immediately.
“I’ve known a lot of [trafficking] survivors who’ve said, ‘I was invisible. People didn’t look at me like I was a person.’ So when someone does look at them with love, they don’t forget it.”
To learn more about human trafficking and how to fight it, order a copy of Nita Belles’ book, In Our Backyard: Human Trafficking in America and What We Can Do About It and visit InOurBackyard.org. You can report suspected trafficking or get other help through the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or HumanTraffickingHotline.org.