Labor Trafficking and Forced Labor Exploitation

Last updated April 2019


Labor trafficking and labor exploitation are closely related. Trafficking victims are frequently victims of labor exploitation and other forms of abuse, including unpaid wages. Labor trafficking is a crime; labor exploitation is handled by administrative enforcement agencies. Protecting victims and preventing abuses depends on correctly identifying when trafficking and exploitation have occurred.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Forced Labor Convention of 1930 defines forced or compulsory labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”[1] which includes “traditional practices of forced labour, such as vestiges of slavery or slave-like practices, and various forms of debt bondage, as well as new forms of forced labour that have emerged in recent decades, such as human trafficking.”[2] Although forced labor and human trafficking are linked, they are not identical:

While most victims of trafficking end up in forced labour, not all victims of forced labour are in this situation as a result of trafficking. For example, people who are coerced to work in their place of origin have not been considered in the ILO’s own estimates of forced labour as trafficking victims. A distinction must also be drawn between those people who are under some form of economic compulsion to accept sub-standard working conditions because they simply have no alternative (exploitation or abuse of vulnerability, but not necessarily forced labour) and those against whom actual coercion is exercised by a third party to force them to undertake a job against their will (forced labour).[3]

The ILO defines lorced labor exploitation as a phenomenon “imposed by private agents for labour exploitation, including bonded labour, forced domestic work, and work imposed in the context of slavery or vestiges of slavery.”[4]

Labor trafficking occurs when an employer compels or deceives a worker into providing involuntary labor. The employer often uses violence, threats, manipulation of debt, blackmail, or fraud to compel victims to work. Typically, such work takes place in abusive conditions, such as an unsafe work environment, long hours without breaks, or work without pay. Labor exploitation occurs when employers profit from the illegal treatment of their workers, but do not exert the level of control that characterizes labor trafficking. One of the most common forms of labor exploitation is the denial of fair pay, also known as “wage theft.” Wage theft is also a key component of labor trafficking, since traffickers frequently use their control over their victims to cut their wages or to stop paying wages altogether.

The forms of coercion associated with forced labor resulting from trafficking include “confiscation of personal identity documents, the threat of denunciation of irregular migrants to the authorities in the host country, deception of a trafficked person about the type of work he or she will eventually undertake, and withholding of wages over prolonged periods.”[5]   

Labor Sectors

One of the driving factors that place women at risk of labor trafficking and labor exploitation is that—because women are denied equal access to education and economic and social opportunities—they disproportionally work in the informal labor sector which lacks basic labor protections. Women are funneled into childcare, domestic work, janitorial services, garment manufacturing, and agriculture, where they often are isolated and subject to long hours with little to no pay.[6] Additionally, “[e]xploited labourers are unlikely to be offered adequate training (in a language they understand) or personal protective equipment to, for example, use heavy equipment, work at heights or with harsh chemicals, or to do repetitive tasks (eg, bending, lifting).”[7]

In 2017, the ILO released its most comprehensive estimate on modern slavery, finding that more than 15.9 million people were victims of forced labor exploitation at any moment in 2016.[8] Around 58% of those individuals—9.2 million—are women and girls.[9] Focusing on forced labor exploitation, the ILO estimates that 24% of victims—around 3.8 million—are in domestic work, and of those 3.8 million, 61% or 2.3 million are women and girls.[10] 92% of victims of forced labor exploitation in accommodation and food service are women and girls.[11] As 10% of total labor exploitation is in accommodation and food service—about 1.6 million individuals—1.5 million women and girls are victims of labor exploitation this sector.[12]

The high rate of women and girls experiencing forced domestic labor exploitation is driven by “the demand for cheap and exploitable household help, a lack of legal protections for domestic workers, and an absence of monitoring agencies.”[13] However, due to the private nature of domestic work, it is difficult to detect instances of forced labor exploitation and trafficking. The hidden nature of domestic work and lack of formal legal protections are further compounded by the chronic undervaluing of domestic work. Domestic work is often seen “more as a set of chores bounded in gendered relations of interpersonal trust and less as remunerated work.”[14]

As with domestic work, forced labor exploitation in the agricultural sector is propelled by “the absence of labor standards and regulations in the industry, and to the increasing number of undocumented immigrant farm workers that have no legal protection.”[15]

Individuals forced to work in apparel manufacturing endure harsh conditions, including long hours for low and inconsistent—if any—pay, as well as harassment and abuse, and poor compliance with health and safety standards.[16]  The locations in which these individuals work have a large effect on their experience. When individuals are far from home, they are dependent on their employers for food, housing, and transportation.[17] Smaller, more isolated sites are less likely to be inspected for labor, health, and safety violations.[18] Further, forced labor exploitation in garment manufacturing occurs in the victims’ homes. In an effort to cut costs, some manufacturers contract with women who weave, cut, or sew in their own homes, creating an even larger vacuum for protections.[19]

[1] ILO, Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Art. 2(1).

[2] ILO, General Survey on the Fundamental Conventions Concerning Rights at Work in Light of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2012), ¶ 272.

[3] ILO, Fighting Human Trafficking: The Forced Labor Dimensions (Background Paper) (Jan. 28, 2008), [hereinafter Fighting Human Trafficking].

[4] ILO, Global Estimate of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage 17 (2017) [hereinafter Global Estimate of Modern Slavery].

[5] ILO, Fighting Human Trafficking, supra note 3.

[6] Global Freedom Center, Women: Invisible in Labor and Labor Trafficking, (last accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

[7] Ligia Kiss et al, Health of Men, Women, and Children in Post-Trafficking Services in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam: An Observational Cross-Sectional Study, 3 Lancet Global Health (Mar. 1, 2015).

[8] ILO, Global Estimate of Modern Slavery, supra note 4, at 18.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 32.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Chrissey Buckley, Forced Labor in the United States: A Contemporary Problem in Need of a Contemporary Solution, in Topical Research Digest: Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery 116 (2008).

[14] Alexandra Richard-Guay & Thanos Maroukis, Human Trafficking in Domestic Work in the EU: A Special Case or a Learning Ground for the Anti-Trafficking Field?, 15 J. Immigrant & Refugee Studies 109, 110 (2017).

[15] Buckley, Forced Labor in the United States at 117.

[16] Women Should Not Have to Choose Between Employment and Safety: In Garment Factories They Do, Fashion Law (Aug. 15, 2017),

[17] Global Freedom Center, Women: Invisible in Labor and Labor Trafficking, (last accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

[18] Id.

[19] Women Should Not Have to Choose Between Employment and Safety: In Garment Factories They Do, Fashion Law (Aug. 15, 2017),