By the time the van pulled up to a hotel in Duluth two and half hours later, many passengers were in significant pain. The van was overcrowded, people’s limbs were stuck in awkward positions, and many passengers hadn’t been given the chance to use a bathroom all day.
Inside the hotel, Joseph was shown his sleeping quarters — a basement room that was technically under renovation, but was in truth just decrepit. Inside lay a few musty, old mattresses with other employees already sprawled across them. More than anything, he wanted to lay his head down and sleep after such a long journey, but he was immediately put to work.
For the next 18 hours, Joseph cleaned rooms, washed dishes, and performed maintenance duties, all while taking frequent verbal abuse from his boss. When a third-party contractor mailed Joseph his first paycheck two weeks later, it was for only $25. His actual wage was $2 an hour, a small fraction of what he had been promised, and no overtime was paid. On top of that, deductions were taken from his check for visa renewal expenses.
This was Joseph’s new home. This was his new reality.
Joseph’s experience illustrates the rude awakening many victims receive shortly after arriving in the United States, as well as an important distinction between labor exploitation and labor trafficking.
Exploitation involves instances where employers deny workers’ rights, such as fair compensation and reasonable working hours and conditions. In the above example, putting the victim to work right away could be classified as labor exploitation.
Labor trafficking, on the other hand, involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel labor. In Joseph’s case, it includes seizing travel documents to prevent laborers from leaving an undesirable working arrangement, threatening deportation if they complain, isolating them, and restricting their communications.
But the distinction between exploitation and trafficking is rarely made on the ground. This is the biggest reason so many labor trafficking crimes happen without intervention or recourse.
“I think people think of it . . . as somebody’s chained up in a corner, and not that that isn’t happening and horrible, but there’s so many other forms,” said a victim services provider working in a rural area in the Northeast. “And so I think you have some people that feel like it’s really not a problem.”