Forced Labor

The majority of human trafficking in the world takes the form of forced labor. Also known as involuntary servitude, forced labor may result when unscrupulous employers take advantage of gaps in law enforcement to exploit vulnerable workers. These workers are made more vulnerable to forced labor practices because of high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, and cultural acceptance of the practice. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable, but individuals are also forced into labor in their own countries. Female victims of forced or bonded labor, especially women and girls in domestic servitude, are often sexually exploited as well.

Forced labor is a form of human trafficking that is often harder to identify and estimate than sex trafficking. It may not involve the same criminal networks profiting from transnational sex trafficking. Instead, it may involve individuals who subject workers to involuntary servitude, perhaps through forced or coerced household or factory work.


Bonded Labor

One form of force or coercion is the use of a bond, or debt, to keep a person under subjugation. This is referred to in law and policy as “bonded labor” or “debt bondage.” U.S. law prohibits debt bondage, and the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol includes it as a form of trafficking related exploitation. Workers around the world fall victim to debt bondage when traffickers or recruiters unlawfully exploit an initial debt the worker assumed as part of the terms of employment.


Debt Bondage Among Migrant Laborers

The vulnerability of migrant laborers to trafficking schemes is especially disturbing because the population is sizeable in some regions. There are three potential contributing factors: (1) abuse of contracts; (2) inadequate local laws governing the recruitment and employment of migrant laborers; and (3) intentional imposition of exploitative and often illegal costs and debts on these laborers in the source country, often with the support of labor agencies and employers in the destination country.

Abuses of contracts and hazardous conditions of employment do not in themselves constitute involuntary servitude. But the use or threat of physical force or restraint to keep a person working may convert a situation into one of forced labor. Costs imposed on laborers for the “privilege” of working abroad can make laborers vulnerable to debt bondage. While the costs alone do not constitute debt bondage, when they become excessive and involve exploitation by unscrupulous employers in the destination country, they can lead to involuntary servitude.


Involuntary Domestic Servitude

A unique form of forced labor is that of involuntary domestic workers, whose workplace is informal, connected to their off-duty living quarters, and not often shared with other workers. Such an environment is conducive to exploitation since authorities cannot inspect private property as easily as they can inspect formal workplaces.

Foreign migrants, usually women, are recruited from less developed countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to work as domestic servants and caretakers in more developed locations like the Gulf States, the Levant, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Europe, and the United States. But many of these places do not provide domestic servants the same legal protections that they provide for foreign workers in other sectors.

Without protections, foreign domestic workers may have fewer options for seeking help when faced with their employer’s threat of or use of force. If they are confined to a home, either through physical restraint or through the confiscation of identity and travel documents, they may find it very difficult to reach out to NGOs or public authorities for assistance due to lack of awareness and fear of their employers.

This high degree of vulnerability calls for a vigorous law enforcement and victim protection response when domestic servants are found in conditions of involuntary servitude in a home. Those domestic servants who choose to escape from abusive employers are sometimes termed “runaways” and seen as criminals, though they should be considered as possible victims of trafficking.


Forced Child Labor

Most international organizations and national laws recognize that children may legally engage in light work. There is a growing consensus, however, that the worst forms of child labor should be eradicated. The sale and trafficking of children and their entrapment in bonded and forced labor are among the worst forms of child labor. Any child who is subject to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, peonage, or slavery through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, is a victim of human trafficking regardless of the location of that exploitation. Indicators of possible forced labor of a child include situations in which the child appears to be in the custody of a non-family member who has the child perform work that financially benefits someone outside the child’s family and does not offer the child the option of leaving.


Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking comprises a significant portion of overall human trafficking. When a person is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution, or maintained in prostitution through coercion, that person is a victim of trafficking. All of those involved in recruiting, transporting, harboring, receiving, or obtaining the person for that purpose have committed a trafficking crime. Sex trafficking can also occur alongside debt bondage, as women and girls are forced to continue in prostitution through the use of unlawful “debt” purportedly incurred through their transportation or recruitment—or their crude “sale”—which exploiters insist they must pay off before they can be free.


Child Commercial Sex Trade

There can be no exceptions and no cultural or socioeconomic rationalizations that prevent the rescue of children from sexual servitude. Sex trafficking has devastating consequences for minors, including long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease (including HIV/ AIDS), drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism, and possible death.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) is the sexual exploitation of children for the commercial gain of some person(s). CSEC includes all child prostitution as well as child pornography. This is not human trafficking per se, as some forms of CSEC such as child pornography are not always a form of human trafficking. Most forms of CSEC, however, are forms of human trafficking, such as child sex trafficking.

Child Sex Tourism (CST) is one form of “demand” for victims of child sex trafficking. It involves people who travel from their own country—often a country where child sexual exploitation is illegal or culturally abhorrent— to another country where they engage in commercial sex acts with children. CST is a shameful assault on the dignity of children and a form of violent child abuse. It often involves trafficking, as a trafficking crime likely was committed in the provision of the child for the sex tourist’s exploitation.




Adapted from the U.S. Department of State and YWCA Silicon Valley: