WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of slaves are working in the United States in homes, fields, restaurants and building sites, undetected by labour and immigration officials whose lax enforcement allows trafficking to flourish, according to a new study.
"Labour trafficking is hidden in plain sight in this country," Meredith Dank, co-author of the report, said in an interview.
Researchers at the Urban Institute and Northeastern University examined 122 cases of labour trafficking in the United States and interviewed 28 survivors, as well as legal advocates, social workers and law enforcement officers.
Their study released last week shows how the underground economy of slave labour operates in America and how official efforts to combat it are falling short.
The recruitment pattern they found is one seen worldwide.
Unscrupulous labour brokers in the victims' home countries, often introduced by friends and family members, lure ambitious people of all educational levels with promises of well-paid jobs in domestic labour, agriculture, the leisure industry and construction.
Most get official guest worker visas to enter the United States, but upon arrival are trafficked into below-minimum wage jobs and forced to work gruelling hours under abusive conditions that amount to modern-day slavery, the study found.
The victims fall under the radar because they arrive legally and are well coached on how to pass immigration, while authorities are not trained to look for them or provide appropriate help if they declare themselves, it said.
When survivors do escape, they are doubly victimised because their visas usually have expired, so they are treated as illegal immigrants, even though they are legally eligible for temporary work visas, the researchers said.
The study, called "Hidden in Plain Sight", found that victims came from all over the world - 31 percent from Latin America, 26 percent from Southeast Asia and 13 percent from South Asia - and 71 percent arrived by air, holding official guest worker visas.
Thirty-seven percent worked as domestic help, 19 percent as agricultural workers and 14 percent in restaurants.
They paid labour brokers on average $6,150 in recruitment fees and one paid as much as $25,000. Traffickers used lies and intimidation to keep workers on the job after their visas expired.
SEEN, BUT IGNORED
"It is a misconception that they are isolated and hidden. Many of us interact with them on a daily basis, and yet there is no collaboration between federal agencies - the Department of Justice, Labor and Immigration - to address the problem," Dank said.
One woman was seen cutting her employer's lawn with scissors at 4 a.m., yet neighbours ignored her plight.
Trafficked hotel workers complained to the human resources department of their pay and living conditions and were told it was not the hotel's responsibility but that of the labour subcontractor, their trafficker, the research revealed.
"Without one major body to identify victims and investigate cases, no one is taking responsibility," Dank said.
John Picarelli, director of crime and victim research at the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, said last week at a panel discussion on the report that labour trafficking is more widespread in the United States than commonly thought.
He cited a 2012 study that found 38,458 trafficked workers in San Diego county, California, and estimated there were 2.47 million trafficked Mexicans working in the United States.
Laura Fortman, deputy administrator for wages and hours at the U.S. Department of Labor, said her agency has trained its investigators to spot labour trafficking, but has only 1,000 investigators to monitor 7.1 million employers and 137 million workers in the United States.
(Reporting by Stella Dawson,; editing by Alisa Tang)