The Human Cost of Labor Trafficking

It is estimated that twenty to forty million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Of these, the majority are trafficked for labor, and many of them are exploited in the United States.

June 3, 2020 — 32:00 min
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Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Susy Andole

Voices of Hope, Anti-Trafficking Program, Safe Horizon

Mark P. Lagon

Chief Policy Officer, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria

Anita Teekah

Senior Director, Anti-trafficking Program, Safe Horizon

Show Notes

Both U.S. and international law define human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone into labor or commercial sex. The issue has received bipartisan attention in the United States over the past decade, but some experts say the legal framework is failing to reach many victims, particularly when it comes to labor trafficking.


From CFR


Modern Slavery,” Eleanor Albert, Vijai Singh, Jeremy Sherlick


The Security Implications of Human Trafficking, Jamille Bigio, Rachel Vogelstein


How Violent Extremist Groups Profit From the Trafficking of Girls,” Jamille Bigio


Human Trafficking, Conflict, and Security,” Women and Foreign Policy program


Read More


Understanding and Recognizing Labor Trafficking,” Polaris Project


Anti-Trafficking Program, Safe Horizon


Human Rights and Human Trafficking [PDF], UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner


On the Rise: Africans in Forced Labor in the Middle East,” Freedom United


From slavery to solace: One sex trafficking survivor shares her journey to freedom,” Vox


Watch or Listen 


Trafficked in America,” PBS


Lured by a job, trapped in forced labour,” International Labor Organization


The work that makes all other work possible,” Ai-jen Poo, TED



Anita TEEKAH: And it's such a visceral foundational thing that you just want to have a good life. That's it. You just want to have a good life. And these are such basic human rights that we're all entitled to. The right to life, the right to be free from sexual assault, the right to be free from torture and confinement, the right to a sustainable livelihood, the right to decent working conditions and to respect. 

Human trafficking is more than just a crime, it’s a process. A process that slowly deprives people of their humanity by exploiting what is most human in them. The process is lucrative, and deeply ingrained in the global economy. Experts estimate that there are between 25 and 40 million victims of human trafficking globally, and some say it’s one of the fastest growing aspects of transnational crime.

Today we’re going to talk about a segment of human trafficking known as labor trafficking. And our primary focus is going to be the United States - because this crime is happening everyday right here, in our own cities and neighborhoods.

I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, what is labor trafficking, and how can it be stopped?

Susy ANDOLE: My name is Suzy Andole. So, when I was working in Africa, I met a friend, uh, who is a nanny. So, when she mentioned about the job, I'm like, “Oh, yes I will go.” I [was] supposed to work Monday to Friday to get $439 per week. God answered my prayer, you know. I'm getting a better job, better pay, for my better life, [for] me and my daughter and my family.

Susy Andole is a survivor of human trafficking. She came to the United States to work for a Somalian family that sponsored her visa. 

ANDOLE: So, I went home, I came back to Nairobi, they scheduled my flight. I came here in [the] United States. You know I'm new. It was a little cold. In my country it's not cold.

Gabrielle SIERRA: (Laughs).

ANDOLE: I didn't know, you know, we are staying in the plane that long. My feet was all swell, you know. I can't even fit in my shoe[s] and I was wearing high heel[s] for 20 hours in the plane. So, she came and pick me [up] at the airport. So, from there she brought me home. I'm so tired. So, after that, I ask for food. She gave me something little. I'm like, "oh my God. This is not enough." So, my life started like that.

The fact that her host family didn’t feed her after a 20 hour flight was only the first sign that promises made to Susy in Kenya would not be kept in the United States. 

ANDOLE: I used to work 14 to 16 hours, sometimes 18 hours. When I started, let's say in October, November, I didn't get my salary. My first salary was in December. Only $200. And she told me I still owe her some money because I'm not paying anything. Like, I'm living for free: free food, free house, and I'm still paying the [plane] ticket. She bought it for me to come over.

Her legal documents were also withheld, and she was never allowed to leave the house on her own. 

ANDOLE: Things started changing. So, she was telling me, "Oh, you can't keep money in the house." That time I don't have even ID. I don't have even any of my documents.


ANDOLE: She used to tell me, "If you run, I will call the police. They will take you to jail. After jail, they will deport you. I was stuck with no way out. 

SIERRA: So what actually defines a victim of human trafficking?

TEEKAH: So there are different legal frameworks that we can use when defining whether someone is a victim of human trafficking or not. My name is Anita Teekah. I'm the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon.

Safe Horizon is a leading victim services nonprofit based in New York. 

TEEKAH: But the most common that we use is the federal trafficking victims protection act, which means legally that you have to be a victim of either the use of force or fraud or coercion in order to compel you to engage in any type of commercial sexual activity or any type of forced labor. 

While sex trafficking is a regular fixture on the evening news or Law and Order episodes, labor trafficking can be harder to see. But it is happening.

One of the main misconceptions about labor trafficking is that it’s mostly about smuggling people across borders against their will. And while that does happen, it’s not the crux of the issue at all. 

TEEKAH: By and large, the majority of our clients who are subsequently trafficked as domestic workers come here through the legal immigration system on temporary nonimmigrant worker visas.

SIERRA: So they weren't being trafficked at the time that they entered the country or at least they weren't aware of it. 

TEEKAH: Correct. And so what it looks like is usually in the home country, a recruiter is acting on behalf of a family or on behalf of a company and they are making certain promises to interested applicants for a domestic worker position. The recruiter will note the hours of work, the work conditions, the pay. And then when the worker comes over here, they encounter a situation that's very different, whether it's working 18 hours a day, and not being given any breaks, not having adequate access to food, not being allowed to take time off to see a physician if they're experiencing any injuries or complaints. And so the promises that are made in the home country are often very different from the reality encountered in the destination country.

Mark LAGON: Trafficking sounds like it's about movement, but it's really the human trade. 

This is Mark Lagon. He served as the Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons under President George W. Bush, and was the Executive Director of the Polaris Project, a global leader in the fight to prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking. 

LAGON: So people will tell poor people in developing countries, neighboring countries, you can have this great job, this great experience, a better life. You can send money back to your family. And if you come work here, either as a guest worker with papers or coming, undocumented, we'll get you into a good job. And then they're lied to, they're put into something really onerous, nasty forced labor situation. And it turns out to be the equivalent of modern day slavery. 

SIERRA: And what are the recruiters or what are these organizations getting in return for this?

LAGON: Money. I mean, the fact is that it's worth thinking about the economics of this. There are criminals, either small fry criminals or big organizations and they choose human trafficking over arms trade or, you know, drug trafficking, because there's the maximum payoff and money and the minimum chance that they're going to get caught. 

SIERRA: And who else is benefiting from this process?

TEEKAH: Frankly, it's the family for whom the domestic worker is working. If the domestic worker's coming over here as part of a scheme that's perpetrated by a large company, like a nursing home company or a home health aide company, then they're obtaining really cheap labor from foreign countries. They are targeting individuals who are already so incredibly financially unstable. They are getting an incredible amount of work for free or for very low costs and the cost that is paid by the worker is unfathomable.

SIERRA: So in some of these scenarios, is the host family even aware that their domestic worker is trafficked?

TEEKAH: So it depends on how that domestic worker came into that person's household, into the host families, sort of, orbit. And so at times, yes that host family can know very well that they are not giving this person breaks, that they're not paying them their hourly rate, that they're not providing them with overtime, that they are not providing them with access to food and to medical care, and even if the worker was originally recruited by a third party intermediary, once that person is in your home, you have an ethical and a moral obligation to ensure that you're treating them like a decent human being. And, you know, it's funny because I don't know that employers in the United States think that critically about it. I think what they see is this is a cheaper form of labor. With private workers, if you pay the worker under the table and so they're not declaring taxes or if you're not paying your worker at all, you're not likely to announce that publicly or document that anywhere. So we actually don't know how many privately employed domestic workers there are. And so that's why it's so hard to estimate how prevalent human trafficking actually is because with the numbers we do have, it's incredibly pervasive. And so we know that like with any other type of crime that's severely underreported, if we know of a thousand cases, there are probably 10,000 cases that we don't know about. 

While the exact numbers aren’t known, the issue has received a lot of attention from lawmakers over the last two decades. In fact it’s been a rare case of bipartisanship across several presidential administrations. 

LAGON: In the year 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed. I played a small part as a Senate staffer. It was a wonderful example of people on the left and the right coming together. That doesn't happen very often today. And that legislation helped set up an apparatus to hold the perpetrators of human trafficking to account - prosecution, to help the victims - protection, and to try and stop it from happening in the first place - prevention. It also sets up provisions for the US helping other countries by putting out a report to give grades of other countries and give them advice and assistance. I used to head the State Department office that that legislation created. 

SIERRA: And how successful has it been? 

LAGON: In the United States there's been a lot of progress. It's varied in the 50 States, more of the progress has been made on sex trafficking. The international labor organization and a lot of experts on human trafficking have found that over three quarters of the victims of human trafficking are exploited for labor rather than exploited for sex.  And so looking for those, finding those people, protecting them, giving them shelter, giving them medical care, giving them therapy and helping them get trained for other work to reclaim their dignity, those labor trafficking victims, that's the frontline of progress that we need to grapple with.

SIERRA: So, once someone's been identified as a victim of human trafficking in the US, what tools exist to help them at this point?

LAGON: Well, first of all, if they're from another country and they happen to be undocumented, but it's not their fault that they've been subject to three words in the law and the UN treaty, force, fraud and coercion. They have to cooperate with law enforcement. If they talk with law enforcement or an immigration official and help share information about those who have been exploiting them, they can be given what's called a T visa, T for trafficking. And they can stay in the United States on that humanitarian visa. They can even work. And they should be, because they should be treated, not as someone to deport, but someone to help. A Congressman at the time of the legislation, Lamar Smith was so suspicious that people would lie and say they were human trafficking victims, that he put a cap on the number of those humanitarian visas. 

SIERRA: What's the cap? 

LAGON: The cap’s 5,000 and never gotten close to it. It’s a reasonable thing to have been put out there to reassure those skeptical about people who might game the system. It hasn't proven to be needed. 

Politicians of both parties have been focused on human trafficking for decades, but experts say that the current framework is still not helping the majority of victims. Part of the problem is that most victims don’t understand their basic rights, much less specific mechanisms like T visas that could provide them with a path to freedom.  

SIERRA: What are the forces that bind to someone in human trafficking? What is it that keeps them stuck where they are?

LAGON: Intimidation and debt often. It is often not the most desperately poor person, but someone who is in a very difficult position economically who is lured into, you know, teenage prostitution or into migrant worker situations. And then it turns out that in the process, they have put themselves deeply into debt for the privilege of being put into a horrible situation. They're afraid of not only surviving this situation of exploitation but if they came forward, they'd be blamed or sent home in shame.

Mark is talking about something called “debt bondage”. 

TEEKAH: Debt bondage is a form of human trafficking. And so say for example, the host family charges you $5000 for the plane ticket and for the visa and for any other travel and immigration related costs. You don't have $5,000. And so we've had clients who have leveraged or sold ancestral land in their home countries. They have sold everything they can. And they've also secured loans, not only from local banks and lenders, but also from external and extended circles of families and friends. And so now you have this debt. Now you're told by your employer, okay, you have to pay $500 a month for housing. You have to pay for any food that you consume. Couple that with either not being paid at all or being paid very, very little, there is no way you are ever going to pay off this debt. So many of our clients have expressed incredibly deep feelings of shame, and remorse, and guilt. Because if you've borrowed money from family and from friends, all of those individuals have a financial and an emotional stake in your success in the United States. It's an incredibly shameful thing to have to admit to all of these people who have invested in you, people who couldn't really afford to invest in you, that you in some sense have failed. And we know that it's not a failure. We know that they're actually victims of crime and exploitation, but that's not how they perceive themselves. They perceive themselves as gullible or naive. And so they continue to stay in the situation with the hopes of making some money back so they can send some money back to their families or back to their home country to start paying down this debt. 

And so in addition to the, the emotional sort of bondage and the debt bondage it's also confiscating passports and documents. If you don't have any of your identity documents, if you are kept under lock and key and you cannot leave the house, if you don't speak the language, who are you going to talk to? So we've had clients who've been trafficked from state to state and they don't even know what state they're in. They don't know what city they're in, they don't know what resources are available to them. You're operating completely blind. And given what is covered in media around the world with respect to the US immigration system and our deportation scheme, it's not unreasonable that a foreign national domestic worker would have a really tangible, credible fear of being deported by an abusive employer. 

In telling her story, Susy cited all of these fears. And another one, too. 

ANDOLE: I wanted to run, to escape, but we have this young little girl. She wasn't even a year yet. So, if I look back, I'm a mother. I have my own kid too. If you leave the house, who you're going to leave the kids with? All that hour in the house. Then when I'm leaving, I'm running, I'm going where?

SIERRA: Right.

ANDOLE: They will still catch me where I am because you don't know where you're landing, you know. I will go run and go out there. That person will report me to police. 

Her first chance at any type of freedom in the United States came when she asked to attend religious services. 

ANDOLE: I told them, "Oh, I need to start going off. I want to go to church." I'm a Christian, they were Muslim. She took me to a church, a Lutheran church. When I went to that church, those church members were so friendly. They were happy to see me. They were all white, I was the black one in that church. So, they come to talk to me. Where are you from? I told them I'm from Kenya and then one mentioned, "Oh, there's another lady from Tanzania." I told her, "Yes, uh, I don't have my ATM card, I don't have my ID, I don't have my passport. She's keeping all my things." And the woman said, "That's abuse." 

Susy had found a friend, someone who started explaining her rights, and who soon found her additional work in nearby New Rochelle. But this initial moment of hope turned out to be the first in a chain of new working abuses. 

Susy was eventually able to escape her first employer. And yet afterwards she found herself in a series of homes where person after person exploited her vulnerability. She eventually landed in the Bronx. There, someone overheard her being abused by her latest employer. 

ANDOLE: She's yelling at me in our language and this guy was American, he sensed something the way she was talking to me. Like, “uh, do faster, do quickly.” So, in the elevator he ask[ed] me, "Oh, uh, who are you to them? Are you related?" I just started explaining to him. He's like, "Oh, I have a big house. You can come and clean." And then my first question was that, "Are you going to pay me?" He say like, "Yes. I will pay you $20 per hour." I was so happy. And then I went there, but I'm coughing, I'm sneezing, I'm so skinny, like you know. I’m, my face, even if you look at me, you just know right away she's going through something. So, he told me, "Oh, I can't even let you clean my house. You need to go to the doctor."

So, when I went to Montefiore Hospital, I filled [out] the form. I didn't put the address. Why? Because they told me to not give their address anywhere. So, when my doctor call me and then he say, "Miss Andole, uh, where do you live?" I didn't want to give the address. So, he looked at me and then he tell the lady, we came with one lady from African Services who took us to the hospital. He told him to go out. So, he told me, "Miss Andole, do you have any problem? I want you to tell me and I won't tell anybody. I want to see if I'm going to help you." So, I started telling him I'm from Kenya. I came here to work, uh, with a diplomat as a nanny. Since I came to this country, if I get sick, I've been given Advil and Aleve. If I go to my menstruation, I don't have even sanitary diaper. I used to use my t-shirt. I started opening for him because he told me he won't mention it to anybody.

SIERRA: Right.

ANDOLE: And then he said, "That's abuse. Let me call Safe Horizon." 

Susy visited Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program. There, she was finally in the hands of professionals who could give her the help she needed. 

ANDOLE: So, the case worker ended up calling me. When I went to the office, like on the waiting room, when I saw her coming. Like, the love she showed me, like I feel like, this is it now. This is, you know.


ANDOLE: I cried, she hugged me. I cried, I cried. I wasn't crying because I'm in, uh... because of the stress and what I'm going through. I was like, now, I've found my sister. Like I find now, she is going to give me help, you know? She told me, "Don't worry. We'll try our best to help you." 

SIERRA: Do you think that the system as it currently exists is helping the majority of victims?

LAGON: I wouldn't say that's helping the majority of victims, it's helping more and more. One of the problems I must say, is the lack of good data. It's clear since that legislation was passed 20 years ago, that we've made great progress in laws, finding more victims. But my sense is that there are many more out there who have been victimized that are afraid to come forward. 

SIERRA: I mean, there's a lot of fear in the idea of being in a situation where you have no power and then going to let's say the police and trusting that they will help you in the right way when you actually don't even know, let's say about a T visa or any of the rights that you have in this country. 

LAGON: Yeah. And the exploiters reinforce the notion, you can't come forward, you're going to be blamed, you're going to be treated like the criminal. And, and they have a lot of trauma. They're subjected to violence and intimidation and fraud. And one of the things when you find a human trafficking survivor is you need to remember not just shelter, not just physical medical care, but deal with the trauma. 

SIERRA: So, how are we finding and prosecuting the perpetrators?

LAGON: Well, take for instance a maid who is confined to a home, beaten, she might flee and then she might talk, to law enforcement or immigration officials about, those she worked for, those who mistreated her, the recruiters back in her home country, those who placed her in the United States. And then law enforcement has evidence. This one of the reasons why having a heart and helping the human trafficking victims is not just, you know, kind of a, a do-good social welfare policy, but it will help them be one of the most valuable sources of evidence.

SIERRA: What is the international community doing together? 

LAGON: Good question. The international community cooperates on trying to look at patterns of human trafficking. Those who are illicitly recruiting people, the money flows. Countries are given advice by the UN office on drugs and crime and the United States on how they can form better laws and much more importantly how to implement those laws. But we need to increase the intensity. Countries notice. Wow, the United States is in our face about this and offering us help on this. It doesn't help their business interests. And this is what we should be building and restoring our foreign policy around. A calling card for America that has a heart, that shows that we will use power to stop something truly destructive.

SIERRA: What are your thoughts on how the current administration is handling human trafficking? 

LAGON: I think there’s some very good things going on in this era. There's a lot of interest in human trafficking at the White House. The daughter of the president, Ivanka Trump has shed light on it. I think the president has, perhaps perverted the understanding of human trafficking by suggesting that those who are trying to smuggle people across the border are human traffickers and the answer is higher walls. The answer to human trafficking is not to think of the problem as people's movement across borders. It's to look at the exploitation. 

SIERRA: There's been a lot of talk for years about needing, you know, comprehensive immigration reform. What is the relation between our overall immigration policy and the issue of human trafficking? 

LAGON: At the time the human trafficking legislation was passed in 2000 and for the most part since then, there was an understanding that human trafficking victims needed to be differentiated from the general issue of people being undocumented.  I think I myself feel that there needs to be some sort of policy of regularizing the status of those people who've been here for years. We need to think about the children of those who came to the United States, undocumented, those people who do decent work. I think the first step towards really reducing, the flow of, you know, elicit migrants is to deal with the situation of those who have been here for a while. But separate from that, we need to maintain that understanding that there are those who come to the United States either as documented guest workers or, undocumented, who are subject to force, fraud and coercion. And they lose control of their life, and they need to be treated like they're fellow human beings like you and me. 

SIERRA: Mm-hmm. It's kind of a, you know, low bar baseline ask just to be treated like a fellow human being.

LAGON: You know, I'm a Christian, uh, I, you know, I believe all people are of equal value. They're all, you know, formed in the image of the Lord. People who are secular, uh, look to UN treaties, see the, you know, universal, equal worth of people. Same idea. 

SIERRA: Do you think that this is a problem that's just too big for the United States to solve?

LAGON: There is no reason to think that globalization automatically leads to there needing to be slavery. It really isn't necessary. And the cost of doing more to assist victims of human trafficking, beef up law enforcement, give technical assistance to other countries so they not only passed laws, but, improve them, and implement them, that isn't all that expensive. Look, when I headed the human trafficking office of the State Department, we had $18 million to give to all countries in the world to nonprofits or international agencies to try and help victims of human trafficking and train people to fight the problem. When we spend billions of dollars for corporate welfare, uh, for defense, which we need for our country, for important economic relief for our citizens, merely doubling that 18 million, would be nothing. It's in our means to put a real dent in this problem and to be able to study whether the things we're doing are making a difference.

TEEKAH: Honestly, it comes down to love of family. And people will do anything for the people that they care about. I have seen some of our clients put up with some of the most horrific sustained abuse for the possibility of making a hundred dollars in a month that they can send to their family so their child in Mexico or in Peru or in the Philippines can go to school and get an education and not have to do what their parent is doing. And the tipping point for our clients is when I'm making no more money, I'm not making anything whatsoever and I continue to accrue this debt that I can't ever pay off, I have to do whatever I can to leave. We've had clients who have just run out the front door, they had nothing with them. They couldn't take their clothes, they didn't have their passport, they had nothing. And they just tried to find their way to the nearest police station. Or they would talk to somebody at church and they would say, "Help me. This is what I'm going through. Can you please get me out?"

SIERRA: Wow. That is incredible. That must take just an unbelievable amount of bravery to do something like that. 

TEEKAH: It does. And you know, it doesn't end when the person is out of their trafficking. That's honestly, that's just the beginning of the rebuilding for them.

ANDOLE: It wasn't [an] easy journey, but I'm so happy where I am now. I'm still with them. They help me. I have a green card, they help me bring my daughter here. 


ANDOLE: To reunite with me. Now even I can talk [about] it without crying because through the help I get from Safe Horizon. They bring [a] smile on my face.

With proper help, Susy was able to get out of trafficking and into a home where she has built a new life. She has remained with Safe Horizon, and is working to help those who are still trapped.

SIERRA: I mean, when you were trapped, did you know that you could go to the U.S. authorities and tell them that you were a victim of human trafficking? Did you know there were laws to protect you?

ANDOLE: No, I didn't know because, why? How will I know? Even if I know, you're going where? I was new in this country. This was my first time traveling, going far from my country. And it's not me alone. We have a lot of people going through a lot and I was lucky they didn't, like the man didn't rape me. Some they rape them, some they do such a bad things to people and people are shy. Like people are scared, if I say, if I run, and then you look back, even if you do this, where are you going? You're going to maybe kill yourself, commit suicide. So, you're like, "Let me stay in this position I am." You know? So, to me I would like, like if there's a way, these things have to be on TV every day for people to learn. People are going through hell out there, but they don't, they don't know their rights. 

If you believe you have information about a case of human trafficking, or want to connect to human trafficking services in your area, please call the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Be sure to subscribe to Why It Matters on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you like the show, leave us a review! 

Interested in saying hi to the Why It Matters team? Send us an email at [email protected]

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria and our assistant producer is Rafaela Siewert. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks for this episode go to Richard Haass, Jeff Reinke, Anita Teekah and the team at Safe Horizon, and our very own Rafaela Siewert, who truly led the charge on this very important episode. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you next time! 


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