United States

Think You Know Where Trafficking Victims Work? Think Again

Victims worked as escorts, camp counselors, life guards and athletes, according to a report

Human trafficking hides in the shadows, and it can be difficult for bystanders to identify victims. But now Polaris, an organization that fights against trafficking in the United States, has created a guide to help.

With “The Typology of Modern Slavery,” Polaris is providing officials and activists with relevant information so they don't waste resources on misguided initiatives and instead focus on the kinds of trafficking most prevalent in their communities.

The new tool classifies human trafficking into 25 categories, based on data collected by Polaris between December 2007 and December 2016. A team of experts parsed 32,000 trafficking cases in search of trends so they could report on vulnerable populations and profile potential traffickers.

The study says that while many victims are sexually abused, on the global level labor trafficking seems more common than sexual exploitation. From agriculture to drug running to manufacturing, both legitimate and illicit industries take advantage of victims.

Some of the complicit industries may come as a surprise. Polaris has noted 108 trafficking cases in arts and entertainment, the majority of which involved U.S. and foreign models. There were also athletes and performers who were exploited by recruiters, executives and coaches.

The staff at carnivals can be trafficked, as can those who provide health-care assistance at nursing homes or through in-house services.

Polaris believes labor trafficking is more widespread than the numbers suggest. Victims of labor trafficking constitute only 16 percent of those included in the report, which is based on information collected by Polaris through phone calls, emails and other means of contact. The authors say this relatively small ratio is because labor victims don’t always know about the resources at their disposal, or if they qualify for help.

“Polaris strongly believes that labor trafficking cases in the U.S. are chronically underreported due to a lack of awareness about the issue and a lack of recognition of the significant vulnerability of workers in many U.S. labor sectors,” they write.

With 4,651 cases, victims who were forced to provide escort services comprise the largest group in Polaris’ typology. The study says that “the vast majority of the survivors of ‘escort services’ are U.S. citizen women and girls,” though “LGBTQ youth are also vulnerable.”

Escort services are distinct from outdoor solicitation, where victims are forced to sell themselves on street corners. Outdoor solicitation victims face more physical violence than others who experience sexual exploitation. According to Polaris, 50 percent of those forced into outdoor solicitation are minors. Again, members of the LGBTQ community are especially susceptible.

“Traffickers often exploit an LGBTQ person’s housing insecurity and need for family, threaten to ‘out’ them to loved ones, manipulate their self-worth, cause distrust of others, and withhold hormone therapy or other gender-expression necessities in order to control them,” the study finds.

Other forms of sexual exploitation include residential brothels where romantic partners or family members force a victim into having sex; cantinas, bars and strip clubs that require attractive employees to gratify customers who spend a lot on alcoholic drinks; families who sell young girls into sexual servitude to pay off a debt; and pornographic distribution without the consent of those filmed. Between 2007-2016, 61 percent of reported pornography victims were minors.

Traffickers also coerce victims into "remote interactive sexual acts" using webcams, texting and phones. 

While the majority of sex trafficking victims are women, industries that require hard labor target male populations. In agriculture and animal husbandry, 86 percent of reported victims were men, many of whom worked in tobacco fields that required extensive physical effort. Likewise, the vast majority of those trafficked in construction were male and came from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala.

Labor trafficking victims tend to be enticed by unfulfilled promises of education opportunities and benefits, according to the report. They are often offered temporary work visas without portability so that their financial futures and legal status are inextricably tied to their abusive jobs.

Others are undocumented and fear retribution if they seek out authorities.

It can be nearly impossible for victims to identify their traffickers, as the chain of command is too intricate and complicated within trafficking networks. 

At hotels, Jamaican, Filipino, and Indian victims clean guest rooms. At nail and hair salons, Vietnamese, Chinese, and South Koreans are surrounded by customers who could help them, but their traffickers have ensured they can’t speak English well enough to ask for an intervention. Men and women from around the world who are misled into disingenuous contracts and promised legal documentation fill jobs as lifeguards, food vendors, or camp counselors at recreation centers.

Of Polaris' trafficking cases, 575 were members of traveling sales crews.

“Unlike other types of labor trafficking, the victims in this category are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens,” according to the report.

Traffickers target vulnerable teenagers and young adults and pay victims $5 to $20 stipends a day. When someone threatens to leave the crew, they abandon him or her with nothing in an isolated location to dissuade others from following suit. 

“Although most crews claim to hire those who are at least 18, minors as young as 15 can be involved,” the study says.

The authors of the report say they hope it will advise officials on how to combat trafficking through education campaigns and collaboration.

“It allows stakeholders to begin to look more precisely at each category in order to take steps to prevent and eliminate distinct forms of exploitation,” they write.

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