Chapter 2.

The flights from Manila to Minneapolis were long and tiring, with stops in Tokyo and San Francisco. The ensuing conversation at the customs booth was uneventful; in less than two minutes, Joseph had his passport and H-2B visa stamped. Everything seemed to be going well, but a different reality lay on the other side of the customs gate.

Almost the moment Joseph met his new employer in the baggage claim, his passport and visa were taken from him. He was quickly escorted to and stuffed inside a van with 15 other “new employees.” And it turned out his new job would not be in Minneapolis, as he was originally told. Now Joseph was on the road to an unknown destination.

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.”

Beyond just the public’s perception, it’s also rare for law enforcement to recognize labor trafficking.

“My sense from [police] at the time was that you are not trafficked unless you are locked down,” said an attorney from a western state who provides legal services to labor trafficking survivors. “There was the sense that if there wasn’t physical abuse, or clear incarceration, or whatever, that you weren’t being trafficked.”

Looking at how victims are abused, all those surveyed said they experienced a combination of labor trafficking elements. But most suffered psychological coercion and fraud that may be difficult to prove in the court of law.

“It’s always borderline, and it’s hard because you get a sense of somebody who is being forced to labor involuntarily,” said an attorney with experience prosecuting labor trafficking cases in a northeastern city. “But how that’s happening and why that’s happening can be difficult to prove and show. A lot of times you don’t have corroborating evidence.”