Combating Labor Trafficking: An Interview with Colleen Owens

When you hear the phrase “human trafficking,” what immediately comes to your mind?

If you’re like most people, you might think of sex workers or young girls in bondage. But this modern-day form of slavery goes far beyond the sex trade and has no place in our free society.

But how can law enforcement take a proactive approach to this seemingly nebulous, ever-expanding problem?


Be sure to check out this recorded webinar, as International Trafficking Expert Colleen Owens and Kaitlin Seale of DHS’ Blue Campaign as they discuss:

  • labor trafficking in the United States
  • research results about US labor trafficking,
  •  information about DHS resources to combat the issue.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Colleen, you’re a new presenter for the Justice Clearinghouse/National Sheriffs Association. Tell us about yourself.

Colleen Owens:  Hello! Thank you for inviting me to present my research on labor trafficking. I have over 15 years of research experience. The majority of this time was spent at Urban Institute where I helped build and co-direct our portfolio of research on human trafficking (both labor and sex trafficking) in the United States and several foreign countries. I currently serve as a technical assistance provider with the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance team, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and led by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in collaboration with Aequitas and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Through this work, I provide technical assistance and training, like the webinar I will be presenting on through Justice Clearinghouse, and I am involved in developing a labor trafficking curriculum for investigators.

In addition to this work, I am the recent Founder and CEO of THE WHY, a 501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating modern slavery in the fashion industry, promoting and supporting sustainable and ethical design, and economically empowering survivors. It may come as a surprise that I graduated last year from the Fashion Institute of Technology where I studied footwear design, another passion of mine!



Labor trafficking is similar to sex trafficking in that it is a type of crime

where victims are reluctant to self-report to police –

often out of fear of being arrested for prostitution-related offenses

or immigration violations or other criminal offenses



JCH: When people think of trafficking, so often they think of sex trafficking. But it sounds like you’re talking about more than that? 

Colleen: Absolutely. This is a common misconception – not just among the general population but research has also found that criminal justice stakeholders may define human trafficking primarily as sex trafficking or have trouble distinguishing labor trafficking from smuggling.

Following increasing international concern about the issue of human trafficking, the United States passed a federal law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. The TVPA is reauthorized every few years and defines human trafficking as including both labor trafficking and sex trafficking. While the term “trafficking” connotes movement, movement is not part of the definition of human trafficking under the TVPA or state laws.

According to the TVPA, the definition of labor trafficking is:

  • Labor Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery (22 USC § 7102).



…Not every labor trafficking case requires physical restraint.

Psychological coercion is a far more common tactic.



JCH: You’ve co-authored a study, Understanding the Organization, Operation and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the US. What was this study and what were some of your most interesting findings?

Colleen: The study, Understanding the Organization, Operation and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the US, was funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by my colleagues and me at Urban Institute and Northeastern University from 2012 to 2014, in collaboration with the Freedom Network.

We designed the study to systematically analyze the use of force, fraud or coercion throughout the continuum of a victim’s labor trafficking experience — from the moment workers were recruited for jobs that became labor trafficking, to their travel (if any) to the US for work, to the actual labor trafficked employment, and their escape. And we sought to understand what labor trafficking looked like in as many different industries as possible.

To do this we sampled and coded 122 identified cases of labor trafficking (out of over 400) across 4 study sites and conducted interviews with survivors, service providers, and criminal and civil justice stakeholders at the local, state and federal levels. It is important to mention that our study is not nationally representative, but it does represent one of the most comprehensive studies of labor trafficking in the US.

Of course, I think all of our findings are interesting! However, one finding that may challenge people’s perceptions of what labor trafficking looks like in the United States was that the vast majority of our sample – 71 percent – entered the US lawfully on a visa for the jobs they were recruited for and were subsequently trafficked in.



71 percent [of respondents] entered the US lawfully on a visa

for the jobs they were recruited for

and were subsequently trafficked in.



JCH: I’m sure there are a lot of misconceptions about labor trafficking. What are some of the most common ones that justice professionals typically have? 

Colleen: There are many misconceptions about labor trafficking, below are just a few.

Myth: Labor trafficking doesn’t happen in the United States. Or at least it isn’t happening in my community if tips aren’t being reported, and therefore investigative resources do not need to be dedicated to it.

Reality: While we lack reliable estimates of the number of labor trafficking victims in the United States, research confirms these crimes are often hidden in plain sight, taking place all over the country and in multiple industries.

Labor trafficking is similar to sex trafficking in that it is a type of crime where victims are reluctant to self-report to police – often out of fear of being arrested for prostitution-related offenses or immigration violations or other criminal offenses. In our study, we found that only 7% of labor trafficking survivors self-reported to police. And 14% of labor trafficked individuals were arrested by police, most commonly for immigration violations as a result of being trafficked.

As a result of this, as well as a lack of public awareness about labor trafficking, you may not be receiving too many or any tips.

Identifying labor trafficking requires a more proactive approach that involves assessing labor trafficking risks in your community, mapping population demographics, industry characteristics, understanding which employers in your community hire workers through guestworker programs (DOL’s iCERT database is publicly available and can be searched by jurisdiction). Individuals vulnerable to labor trafficking include both authorized and unauthorized immigrants, homeless and runaway youth, and individuals living with disabilities. Understand the scope and characteristics of these populations within your community and develop partnerships, if you haven’t already, with organizations these populations trust such as farmworker outreach groups, drop-in centers, and shelters. Additional organizations to engage with include industry associations, unions, utility workers, and departments of correction, particularly probation and parole officers. Engaging in awareness raising and training with these organizations and developing relationships can help in identifying potential cases.

Also, look within your own organization to identify cases that may have red flags of potential trafficking, but may have been overlooked. Labor trafficking co-occurs with many crime types – sex trafficking, drug trafficking, gang activity, theft, code violations, financial crimes, and child abuse to name a few. You can do this by pulling cases of other crime types to review for indicators. This can be done manually or if you have an analyst and the technological capability (as well as someone with expertise on labor trafficking assisting), attempting to automate it may help.

Make sure your special units and first-line officers are trained on labor trafficking, the red flags, questions to ask and where to refer potential cases. Labor trafficking is a criminal offense, but as seen in the chart below from our study, labor trafficking victims experience high rates of both civil violations (light blue) as well as criminal violations (dark blue).

The problem is that investigations of workplaces to ensure they are not violating our labor laws (e.g., the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act) are under the jurisdiction of Department of Labor. And depending on where you live, there may not be much history of partnership between DOL and law enforcement. So get to know your local officials.

Table. The Co-Occurrence of Labor Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

Figure out if they are trained on labor trafficking and develop protocols and procedures about what they should do if they come across situations they believe rise to the criminal level. Where should they report these cases? Some task forces I have worked with have stated how it is helpful to describe the boundaries or limits of certain agencies and positions –this may help mitigate misunderstandings around the scope of an agency or individual’s role down the line.



Myth: If it doesn’t involve chains or physical force, a person is free to leave and therefore cannot be labor trafficked.

Reality: While our laws on trafficking are rooted in the principles of the Thirteenth Amendment, cases of human trafficking, often referred to as a form of “modern-day slavery,” may not look like the slavery of the past, and it’s important to recognize those distinctions. In some cases, workers are physically constrained from leaving. For example, in the Signal International case, hundreds of workers from India were labor trafficked in Texas and Mississippi after they were recruited to repair oil rigs damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the abuse, violence and substandard living conditions they suffered, they were living on an isolated compound surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

However, not every labor trafficking case requires physical restraint. Psychological coercion is a far more common tactic. Traffickers threaten violence and degrade a workers’ ability to leave by depriving them of food and medical care and by verbally abusing them. Abuse of the law is another common tactic, where traffickers threaten to arrest or deport workers who do not comply or who try to leave.

In addition to a fear of the police and immigration authorities, labor trafficking victims may be isolated, have their communication and movement monitored and controlled by their traffickers, suffer psychological abuse and manipulation, violence and threats of violence to themselves or their family members if they try to leave, may encounter language barriers, lack knowledge that what they are experiencing is a crime and that they have rights under US law, and do not have information about how to get help, a social network to help them or financial means to escape. Self-blame was also a pervasive barrier to self-report, as survivors reportedly blamed themselves for their victimization.


Click Here to Watch “The Role of America’s Sheriff’s in Labor Trafficking Identification.”



Additional Resources