Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

U.S. struggling to combat forced labor, ex anti-trafficking tsar warns

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 February 2021 17:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker carries a container while heading to pick grapes at sunrise at a vineyard at Napa Valley winery Cakebread Cellars during the wine harvest season in Rutherford, California September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Image Caption and Rights Information

United States urged to shift focus from sex to labor trafficking under Biden administration

By Kieran Guilbert

Feb 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States must get better at tackling forced labor and fund specialist investigators to boost probes and prosecutions, the nation's former anti-trafficking tsar said in an interview.

Successive U.S. governments have been "consistently weak" on labor trafficking with most investigations and criminal charges instead focusing on sexual slavery, said John Richmond, who resigned last month when ex-president Donald Trump left office.

The Department of Justice launched 220 federal trafficking prosecutions and secured 475 convictions in the 2019 financial year, yet only one in 20 of these cases involved forced labor. Both figures were down slightly from the previous year.

Trump's government made trafficking a key issue, but many nonprofits criticized an emphasis on sex exploitation and have urged President Joe Biden to shift the focus to forced labor.

"The United States must do better on labor trafficking ... we haven't figured it out yet," Richmond told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone at the end of his two-and-a-half-year tenure as the country's sixth anti-trafficking ambassador.

Richmond called for dedicated investigative units in the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to combat forced labor - from farm and factory work to domestic servitude - and said the crime tended to be much harder to identify than sex trafficking.

"This is tough work, it needs more resources, more funding and constant emphasis," Richmond said, adding that the problem was not a political one or unique to the Trump administration.

According to the State Department's latest annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, U.S. activists say workplace investigations have decreased and that few labor trafficking cases they refer to law enforcement lead to probes.


Richmond said he hoped the Biden administration would prioritize anti-trafficking efforts and continue to encourage other nations to tackle the issue and prosecute traffickers.

The former ambassador said the government should make greater use of sanctions against individual traffickers and ensure that overseas development projects consider trafficking.

In July, Biden pledged if elected to enact immigration policies that protect survivors, expand federal grants to support U.S. and foreign victims, and crack down on labor trafficking including exploitation in overseas supply chains.

Foreign trafficking victims can apply for a "T-visa" that allows them to stay in the United States, receive government benefits and even put them on the path to U.S. citizenship.

Yet the number of visas given to victims and their families fell and a backlog of pending applications worsened during the Trump era, with Richmond acknowledging complaints from advocates on the matter and referring to "a sluggishness in the system".

"We have the right mechanism, we just need to do better," said Richmond, who was formerly the director for an anti-trafficking nonprofit in India and a U.S. federal prosecutor.

Richmond said the coronavirus pandemic was a huge boon for traffickers as victims were more vulnerable and isolated, while support services and the justice system have been disrupted.

"The impact of COVID-19 and shutdown orders will be seen in the anti-trafficking movement ... for years to come," he said.

An estimated 20 million people globally are victims of forced labor while 4.8 million are being trafficked for sex, according to the Walk Free Foundation. The rights group estimates there are 400,000 modern slaves in the United States.

Related stories:

U.S. criticized over top anti-trafficking ranking despite failings

U.S. urged to get tougher on companies over forced labor abroad 

Fear drives forced labor underground along US-Mexico border 

(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.