Human Trafficking: Labor Trafficking in North Carolina

Human trafficking exists on an alarming scale: an estimated 21 million people are in forced or coerced trafficked situations globally. Of those, nearly 70 percent are in forced labor. Women and girls make up 55 percent of all trafficked persons. Despite this prevalence, many labor trafficking cases may be overlooked or unreported.

In a recent study, RTI researchers interviewed migrant farmworkers in North Carolina to identify the level and type of exploitation they experienced. The study found that 25 percent of the workers had experienced a situation that might constitute trafficking—the use of force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, hold, or move someone for the purpose of labor. About 39 percent reported other abuse, such as being paid less than they were promised. Additionally, male farmworkers were significantly less likely than females to experience forms of trafficking.

The most striking result was the gap between the perceptions of law enforcement officers and the conditions reported by migrant farmworkers, and advocates. Non-law-enforcement stakeholders in our survey consistently reinforced the workers’ accounts, and provided examples of pay reductions, threats of deportation, and cases of workers being forced to pay for safety equipment but discouraged from using it. However, local law enforcement officers sometimes assumed federal agencies were protecting the workers.

Clearly, there is a disparity in the perception and understanding of law enforcement and the experience of farmworkers in North Carolina. We concluded our report by recommending that law enforcement agencies take a proactive, not reactive, stance toward crime affecting the farm labor force.

Our findings, along with the methodology behind them, have won attention in academic circles and from the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, but they have yet to take hold among policymakers. To raise the profile of labor trafficking research, our experts aim to expand our research beyond North Carolina and beyond the agricultural industry—to include restaurants, construction, landscaping, and domestic workers.

Ultimately, our research marks the beginning of a larger effort that could pave the way for better policy and a fairer labor market in the future.