Unions as Trafficking Prevention

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What is labor trafficking?

Labor trafficking or forced labor is the most prevalent type of human trafficking worldwide. Survivors work in various sectors like manufacturing, construction, mining, agriculture, and domestic work. It disproportionately affects people of color, immigrants, low-income people, and those formerly incarcerated. It is more egregious than just a bad job. The most fundamental difference between labor trafficking and poor working conditions is that the person cannot leave. Their trafficker may monitor their movements, physically or sexually abuse them, threaten their families, or use coercive tactics like threatening them with deportation.

Unfortunately, most cases of labor trafficking are not reported. Workers may not understand their rights or define their experience as human trafficking. If they are immigrants, they may have a language barrier or not know where to turn to find help. Similarly, these crimes are not investigated. Law enforcement officers who work on human trafficking cases may not trained to identify labor trafficking or labor oversight agencies may not conduct rountine inspections. With so many workers falling through the cracks, anti-trafficking professionals must focus on preventing labor trafficking in the first place. The best way to do that is to educate and protect workers. 

What is a union?

Organized labor, specifically unions, build power for working people. Unions work as a collective group to achieve better working conditions, higher pay, and address grievances that arise from workers. Unions make it easier for employees to bring their concerns forward because it doesn’t come from one employee who could be punished; it comes from a representative of the group. This system of collective bargaining gives people power without fear of individual retaliation. 

Another critical aspect of unions is the threat of collective action. If an employer knows union workers could strike back, they may compromise with the workers to improve working conditions. Because of collective bargaining and the threat of collective action unions raise the pay for all employees and virtually eliminate the wage gap for women of color. Unions also provide members with education on their rights as employees. By educating workers on their workplace rights it takes away power from employers or traffickers who are trying to take advantage. If employees know their rights and have the union to support them they are able to demand better wages, better conditions, and better benefits. Unions also can have a representative partake in routine inspections. This is beneficial for transparency between employers, employees, and inspectors. It also gives the union a voice during inspections about any issues or safety concerns they have that the employer won’t address. 

How could increased organized labor respond to and prevent trafficking?

Traffickers target individuals who have unstable housing, lack of employment, or poor access to education and social safety nets. These conditions create a power imbalance between workers and employers. Workers do not have the means to negotiate with their trafficker because they are barely meeting their own basic needs or the needs of their family.  Unions can shift power back to workers through educating them on their rights and providing a mechanism for oversight. 

When unions provide information about worker rights, workers can easily identify if they are being abused and where they can get help. They can also use channels within the union to file grievances against the employer that could prompt an investigation. Unions in the workplace can also act as a deterrent for employers trafficking or exploiting workers. Since unions also increase the pay floor and guarantee a certain salary, it is more difficult to exploit workers. If they don’t pay, or underpay workers, the union has a right to investigate the employer and make an official report of labor trafficking. Official reports can then be investigated by government agencies which could take action against the employer. 

By increasing worker protections through unions, traffickers have less power to exploit. As labor trafficking continues to rise globally, we must do everything we can to prevent future cases.