The job promised $200 a week and a temporary work visa. What Daniel found when he arrived in Houston were grueling hours, scarce pay, and the constant threat of deportation.
Daniel’s story is a composite profile based on in-depth interviews with four human trafficking survivors, input from service providers and trafficking experts, and research on labor trafficking. In communities throughout the United States, foreign-born workers like Daniel are lured to communities with the promise of good jobs only to be exploited and abused once they arrive. They are victims of labor trafficking, a common form of human trafficking in the United States.
Daniel was excited for his first paycheck. The recruiter had promised him a significantly higher salary than he could make at home in Mexico. After six weeks in Houston working long hours at a construction site, he expected to receive more than $1,000. Instead, his supervisor handed him a $100 bill.
Mateo, the construction site manager, told Daniel that complications with his work visa were costing hundreds of dollars. Mateo deducted those charges and rent from Daniel’s pay.
Daniel would have little to send home to his family, and that made him feel sick inside. He felt a lot of responsibility—they were relying on him. He had convinced his wife that the money would be worth the time apart. But he didn’t complain to Mateo. Daniel wanted to believe him, to believe the next paycheck would be better. He needed this job—and he didn’t want to acknowledge that his decision to move may have been a mistake.
After ending his shift, Daniel took the bus back to the dark, one-bedroom apartment he shared with two other workers from the construction site. He ate a meager dinner in the roach-ridden kitchen, then lay down to sleep on a thin mattress on the floor.
Victims of labor trafficking worldwide in industries such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing in 2012
Daniel’s path to Houston began in Mexico City. He saw a flyer advertising jobs for construction workers in Texas. After a few months without work, he was willing to consider opportunities outside the country—anything to support his family. When he called the number on the flyer, a man named Javier answered.
Javier asked Daniel a few questions about his background and when he was available to start work. The construction job paid nearly $300 a week. Javier could arrange for a temporary work visa and transportation to Houston. Daniel would pay back the recruitment fee—about $4,000—out of his earnings over time.
Average amount labor trafficking victims in one study paid recruiters for U.S. jobs
With four children at home, Daniel and his wife, Valeria, decided it was the best opportunity to support their family. Daniel would call every week and come home as soon as the project ended.
A few months later his visa was approved and Daniel packed his bag for Houston.
When Daniel arrived at the work site, his boss Mateo greeted him warmly in Spanish. Daniel was told to bring his passport to work on his first day. Leafing through it, Mateo asked if he could make a copy and check a few details related to his temporary work visa.
“Of course,” Daniel said. He was eager to get his paperwork resolved and get to work.
The job proved grueling. In the hot Houston summer, Daniel moved heavy equipment, cleaned and prepared work sites, dug trenches, shoveled dirt, and removed rubble and debris. The skin on his hands began to crack and peel, and he developed a wrenching pain in his lower back. Dust at the construction site gave him a persistent cough, and he started losing weight. Over six weeks, he tightened his belt two notches. Mateo still had not returned Daniel’s passport. Mateo told him that there were problems with his work visa, but said not to worry. He said that as long as Daniel worked hard and kept out of trouble, he would keep his job.
"Work is going great," he would say. "I’ll send you money as soon as they pay me."
Daniel called Valeria every Sunday from a pay phone close to the apartment. “Work is going great,” he would say. “I’ll send you money as soon as they pay me.” Valeria said that she was proud of him for working so hard.
As weeks passed, Daniel continued to receive only a small portion of the wage he was promised, and Mateo’s demeanor changed. He started to yell at Daniel if Daniel stopped to stretch his back or take a water break. Eventually, Mateo threatened to have Daniel deported or to destroy his passport if he did not work harder. Daniel had heard reports of mass deportations on the radio. He feared he would be arrested and detained without contact with his family.
Daniel came to understand that most of the men on the construction site were in the same situation he was in. Javier and Mateo had recruited more than 40 workers from Mexico and other countries, withholding promised wages and threatening the men with deportation if they did not comply with the heavy demands of the construction project. Like Daniel, many of them had taken out loans to pay Javier, and Javier made it clear that those loans would not go unpaid.
Daniel wanted to leave and find a new job, but his temporary work visa was tied to his employer. And, he needed the wages, however infrequent, to send something to his family and to pay his debt to Javier.
One evening the landlord, Lara, came to Daniel’s apartment seeking a late rent payment. She had left messages for Mateo, who had been paying the rent, but he hadn’t returned her calls.
When Mateo filled out the tenant application, he explained that Daniel and the two others who would live there did not speak English well enough to fill it out themselves. Mateo had shown Lara their identification documents, including temporary work visas and proof of employment at the construction site. Knowing that Mateo did not live with the tenants, Lara brought along a Spanish-speaking neighbor to translate.
After several knocks on the door, Daniel, the only tenant home that day, answered the door. He apologized and said that he did not know that the rent was overdue. He explained that Mateo had been deducting rent from his pay and that he had already paid that month.
Reports of Abuse
Top methods of force, fraud, and coercion of workers with temporary work visas reported to National Human Trafficking Hotline* and BEFREE Textline
- Economic abuse
- Threat to deport or report to immigration
- Emotional abuse
- Isolation, monitoring, or stalking
- Important documents withheld or destroyed
- Basic wants or needs withheld or denied
- Threat to harm subject, family, or other
- Physical abuse
Lara sensed something was wrong. The amount of money Daniel said he and his roommates were paying through Mateo exceeded their monthly rent.
Lara had seen news reports about the exploitation of workers with temporary work visas. The workers said they were cheated out of their wages, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned. Some had even died on the job, but employers rarely faced consequences. Her suspicions aroused, Lara asked Daniel about his job and work conditions.
Daniel wanted to tell Lara what was happening, but he was scared where the truth might lead. He wanted out of his situation, but he didn’t have his passport, he still owed money to Javier, and he was terrified of what Mateo might do if he tried to leave. What if Lara called the police and he was deported? Daniel hadn’t spoken to anyone about his ordeal.
Daniel spoke to the neighbor who was translating for them. He asked her if she trusted Lara. The neighbor said Lara had helped her when she was sick and behind in rent. She said that he should explain to her what was going on. After months of abuse and fear, Daniel decided to take a chance. He told the neighbor to explain that he wasn’t being paid by his employer and that he didn’t know what to do.
Lara listened to Daniel’s story and told him not to worry. She would find help for him and his roommates. She didn’t know exactly how, but she would help.
Labor trafficking has been reported among workers who are foreign and domestic, men and women, documented and undocumented, and adults and children. The National Human Trafficking Hotline* has received reports of more than 6,115 labor trafficking cases inside the United States since 2007. However it is widely recognized that labor trafficking is chronically underreported.
Labor traffickers force people like Daniel to work against their will in many industries, including as domestic servants, farm workers, construction workers, or in door-to-door sales crews. Traffickers control and manipulate victims by confiscating some or all of their earnings, keeping them in a situation of debt bondage, and/or threatening deportation and loss of their jobs.
Workers like Daniel often come to the U.S. under a temporary work visa, a non-immigrant designation that enables certain visa holders to work in a particular industry for a limited period of time. A variety of industries, including season agriculture, landscaping, domestic work, hospitality, and meat processing rely on temporary workers to meet their employment needs.
Foreign nationals with temporary work visas can be vulnerable to trafficking because they often lack an awareness of the realities of the job they’ve been hired to do. Many do not know their rights. These workers pay large recruitment and travel fees to labor recruiters and therefore can’t easily change employers once they have arrived.
Labor trafficking survivors interviewed for a 2014 Urban Institute and Northeastern University report on labor trafficking commonly went several months or years before being properly identified and connected to special service providers. During this time, the majority were without legal status, most as a result of their trafficking. Some were placed in deportation proceedings, threatened by immigration officials, and/or arrested and placed in detention centers. Civil damages and criminal restitution were rarely awarded to labor trafficking survivors.
It is often difficult to prove labor trafficking in court. Reporting abuses to the Department of Labor and obtaining relief is challenging due to complex labor laws across multiple visa categories. Variations in language, literacy, and education among foreign trafficked workers adds to that complexity.
*Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline constitutes one of the largest data sets on human trafficking, but it is not intended to represent the full scale or scope of human trafficking within an area or population. Hotline statistics are generated from information communicated to the National Human Trafficking Hotline via calls, emails, or online tip reports. The National Hotline evaluates information for evidence of potential human trafficking but cannot verify the accuracy of the information reported. Statistics are accurate as of June 30, 2017 and are subject to change as new information emerges. Public awareness and advertising of the hotline, and an understanding of who human trafficking victims are, affects utilization of the hotline by a community or victims themselves and may lead to over or under reporting.