A new Urban Institute–Northeastern University study for the first time evaluates the comprehensive state of labor trafficking in the United States.

Hidden in plain sight

Human trafficking generates a lot of media coverage in the United States, but that reporting often focuses on sex trafficking.

Grabbing fewer headlines is the insidious and destructive practice of labor trafficking, whose victims are lied to and surreptitiously, sometimes violently, forced to work for little or no money.

It can happen anywhere. Indoors or outdoors; behind lock and key or out in the open; in rural or urban settings; and within relationships involving employers, employees, and subcontractors.

But labor trafficking is often misunderstood, making it hard for authorities, law enforcement, and everyday people to recognize it, even when it’s right in front of them.

A new Urban Institute–Northeastern University study, the first of its kind, comprehensively analyzes the state of labor trafficking in the United States. Researchers investigated 122 closed labor trafficking cases that took place across a wide array of industries, in four different regions.

Through extensive analysis of legal records and subsequent interviews with 28 survivors of labor trafficking, this research yields detailed insights about this crime's continuum of recruitment and entrapment, transportation and movement, document falsification and acquisition, and escapes and cries for help.

In addition to research findings, this feature shares the survivors’ experiences through a composite character named Joseph. The identities of the interviewed survivors must be protected for the safety of themselves and their families, but their stories are very real. By learning more about the mechanics of this crime, law enforcement, the judicial system, and policymakers can better fight these pervasive offenses that too often go unrecognized or ignored.