On this World Day Against Child Labor, we reflect on the 3.3 million children who experience forced labor every year around the world. According to the International Labor Organization, the prevalence of forced labor increased from 2016 to 2021, exclusively driven by the private economy. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)-funded National Human Trafficking Hotline received information on 10,360 situations of potential human trafficking involving more than 16,000 potential victims. Of the trafficking situations, 1,066 involved labor trafficking in venues including domestic work, agriculture, construction, and food services. Of the trafficking situations, 2,365 involved children. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reports on child labor, forced labor, and the worst forms of child labor provide additional information on labor abuses.
Along the spectrum of harm that a child may experience in labor settings, they experience labor exploitation when someone unfairly benefits from the child’s work. However, fairness may be subjective, and not all labor exploitation is illegal. Situations of labor exploitation that are illegal are those that violate federal, state, and local laws related to the treatment of workers, safety of working conditions, and other violations such as nonpayment of required wages, illegal deductions from pay, and misclassification of workers for tax purposes.
Some labor violations rise to the level of child labor trafficking when someone recruits, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains a child for labor or services through any element of force, fraud, or coercion (22 U.S.C. § 7102(11)(b)). The factors could be physical (e.g., restricted movement, changing working conditions, violence); financial (e.g., debt bondage, withholding of identity documents); or other manipulated conditions (e.g., threats of deportation and enforcement, risk to safety). There are other labor violations that have serious elements of exploitation that do not constitute labor trafficking when there is the absence of force, fraud, or coercion.
Economic dynamics contributing to labor trafficking in the private and informal sectors can be further exacerbated by natural disasters during the cleanup and rebuilding phase, other population-level emergencies (e.g., pandemics, conflicts), or persistent workforce shortages that human traffickers and labor recruiters exploit through forced labor. Criminal organizations around the world and in the U.S. also exploit children in illicit markets through forced criminality schemes (e.g., forced cannabis cultivation, forced drug transportation). Child victims of forced labor in the United States can be of any gender and nationality, including U.S. citizens.