During the summer months, door-to-door sales crews, carnivals, and rural agriculture hire large numbers of workers. By nature, these jobs are temporary and relocate often. The lack of permanency and lack of formality associated with seasonal jobs heightens the potential for dangerous labor trafficking situations. In order to learn more about labor trafficking during the summer months, I interviewed Alden Pinkham, Program Specialist and Trainer at Polaris Project.
Q. What is Labor Trafficking?
A. Labor trafficking can roughly be defined as any instance when a trafficker has used violence, threats, lies, debt bondage or other forms of coercion to force people to work against their will. In many cases, victims generally are looking for an opportunity to work hard, earn money for their families, and be good employees. However, labor trafficking victims are severely exploited for their labor, sometimes forced to live in inhumane conditions, and paid little, if at all.
Q. What are some signs that a door-to-door “solicitor” or member of a sales crew is actually a victim of labor trafficking?
A. First off, people should be aware that solicitors are often trained on how to speak to potential customers in such a way that their work appears legitimate. In order to recognize signs that a “solicitor” is actually a victim of labor trafficking, we must dig deeper than the obvious. Some signs would include indicators that the salesperson is under the age of 18, malnourished, has been working unreasonably long hours, or will suffer from any type of ramification if they either complain or do not meet a certain sales quota for the workday.
Because there exists a normalization of abuse in sales crews, it can be hard to detect instances of labor trafficking. To most sales crew employees, it seems normal to wake up, go to a regularly scheduled unpaid staff meeting, be given $5 a day for food, go out and sell magazine hours for 12-14 hours a day, and then receive points which represent commission money, which is held in an inaccessible account. A good workday is when you meet a quota, and a bad workday is when you don’t meet your quota, or lose subscriptions and receive a negative point balance. Victims of labor trafficking are misled to believe that their earnings are being saved in a bank account, which in reality, they will never gain access to.
Q. Around how many calls has Polaris Project received in relation to instances of labor trafficking?
A. Of the calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline where exploitation has been reported, 19% have reported labor trafficking, and an additional 30% are reports of labor exploitation. This statistic strongly indicates that labor trafficking is occurring, and all labor exploitation calls are categorized as high risk. Another 2% of the calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline regarded instances of both labor and sex trafficking together. Sometimes, labor trafficking victims are also forced to participate in nonconsensual acts of sex such as prostitution. The news media, and television and film industries have recently shone a spotlight on sex trafficking and a wider audience is aware of and understandably horrified by its abuses. Labor trafficking has not been exhibited to the public on as large of a scale, and thus fewer people are aware of it, despite its frequency.
Q. Can you comment on instances of human trafficking that occur at carnivals, or at large-scale traveling events?
A. The hotline has received reports of human trafficking from seasonal industries such as summer camps, agriculture in rural locations, and carnivals, which relocate frequently. In these scenarios, victims become dependent on their employer for most basic daily needs, including food, shelter, and transportation.
Q. What are the legal ramifications for labor trafficking?
A. Labor trafficking is a criminal offense under Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Cases of labor trafficking are often very complex, and can be difficult to punish through prosecution.
Q. What is the most effective way of identifying a labor trafficking victim and helping him or her locate assistance?
A. Be on the lookout for red flags such as a worker holding a debt, continuing to work at a job that they would rather leave, fearing consequences, physical or sexual abuse or threats, or owing a debt that they are required to pay off for working a specific job. If you encounter someone that exhibits one or more of these red flags, the best solution would be to provide them with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number and urge them to call it. It is best for the victim to call the hotline directly so that we can talk to them about the specific situation, and help to connect them with all available resources such as legal aid, shelter, and law enforcement. If the potential victim needs help but is unable to call, or fears calling, community members can call the hotline and report the situation.
It is important to be on the lookout for labor trafficking victims in situations of seasonal summer work, especially sales crews. Sales crews differ from other seasonal workers because they are visible to the public, usually outdoors, as opposed to domestic workers who work inside the private confines of homes. We have observed that sales crews don’t typically learn about the National Human Trafficking Hotline until they have been abandoned. It is crucial to share the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number (1-888-373-7888) far and wide, so that labor trafficking victims know that there is a number they can call for help.