How Are 400,000 Enslaved in America? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Are 400,000 Enslaved in America?

How Are 400,000 Enslaved in America?

By Olivia Miltner


Forced labor in the U.S. is far more common than you think, bolstered by tighter immigration laws. 

By Olivia Miltner

A health care worker was on a routine visit to the home of an Iraqi couple in suburban El Cajon in San Diego County, California, in early 2016 when the housekeeper surreptitiously slipped her a note. The health care worker gave the note to authorities who translated it from Indonesian to discover that the housekeeper claimed she was being held against her will.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations descended on the residence, arrested Firas Majeed, 44, and Shatha Abbas, 38, and rescued the housekeeper, who spoke no English. Identified in court documents only as WM, it turned out she had been working 18 hours a day for the previous five months with no days off and no pay. The couple had confiscated her passport and basically confined her to the house. Majeed and Abbas ended up pleading guilty to illegally withholding a passport and were sentenced to three years’ probation. The sweetest justice for WM: The court ordered the couple to fork over back pay — $18,270.

WM’s case is far from an isolated one. California is a magnet for human trafficking, says Kay Buck, CEO of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), one of the largest service providers to victims of trafficking in the U.S. And forced labor is a national issue, according to Walk Free Foundation, an Australian-based organization whose global mission is to end modern slavery. According to the nonprofit’s 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI):

400,000 people in the U.S. — nearly 1 in 800 — are enslaved.

California has the most reported cases of human trafficking in the U.S., according to National Human Trafficking Hotline statistics, trailed by Texas, Florida, Ohio and New York. Globally, the International Labor Organization reports that forced labor generates $150 billion in profits annually, with most of the windfall in the Asia-Pacific region and in developed countries.

Forced labor in the U.S. is most prevalent among domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant and food service workers, health and beauty providers — even door-to-door traveling sales crews flogging magazine subscriptions. Though not always bundled into government forced-labor statistics, involuntary prostitution and marriage are included in GSI estimates.


Slavery is illegal in every country — and those pulled into this illicit economy are often “not allowed to come into contact with anyone in the outside world, which means that they’re incredibly vulnerable,” says Davina Durgana, the senior statistician and co-author of the GSI report. 

But 400,000 sounds like a lot, right? Let’s look at how they crunched the numbers. Given the nature of the subject, of course, Durgana and her team face challenges in gathering GSI data. Walk Free Foundation is the only group measuring enslavement on a country-by-country basis. Durgana and her team use face-to-face surveys of 71,000 respondents in 48 countries chosen for accessibility, general safety and geographic representation. The roster includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in Europe; India, Pakistan and Indonesia in Asia; Egypt and Nigeria in Africa; and Mexico and Brazil in the Americas. The team also selects countries that may provide insights about slavery in specific regions. 

[Victims of enslavement] are vulnerable because they are poor. That is the reality.

Kay Buck, CEO, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking

The U.S. and other major Western countries are not surveyed via personal interviews, which “can be tremendously costly,” Durgana says. Also, in using a typical sample size of 2,000 U.S. residents, for example, the statistical likelihood of picking a sample with enslaved people in it is low, although that does not mean forced labor doesn’t exist from a national perspective. Plus, research in developed countries often relies on telephone surveys, which the GSI team has determined are not as accurate as face-to-face surveys, given the sensitive nature of the questions.

Instead, to arrive at an estimate of the total number of enslaved people in the U.S., the GSI pursues multiple systems estimation — a family of techniques that measures statistical inference using overlaps between incomplete data sets. The technique is common among human rights groups and other organizations working with difficult-to-obtain data. The U.S. figure is extrapolated from a hemisphere-wide sample and tweaked with U.S.-specific risk factors, like poverty rates, employment stats and other government-generated data. 

“The survey approach to estimating the incidence of trafficking is a legitimate research method,” says Ron Weitzer, sociology professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., although he notes the stigma attached to abuse “may lead to significant under-reporting.” Less likely, Weitzer says, is over-reporting from respondents interpreting the questions too broadly.

Like legitimate enterprise, the contemporary version of the slave trade has benefited from globalization, which increases transportation, communication and other connections between at-risk people abroad and individuals and companies in the U.S. looking for free labor. The recent tightening of immigration laws, Durgana says, has bolstered human trafficking. “Now you have people who are incredibly vulnerable that have to undertake riskier and riskier ways of obtaining entry into countries like the United States and Western Europe,” she explains.

CAST has seen this firsthand; in fiscal year 2016, the organization recorded a 16 percent increase in calls to its emergency hotline. In 2017, it saw a 31 percent increase, although part of that could also stem from increased outreach and recognition in at-risk communities. Buck says the organization serves survivors from more than 59 countries, mostly from developing areas. “They are vulnerable because they are poor,” Buck says. “That is the reality.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that El Cajon was in Orange County. It is in San Diego County.

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