Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report details who trafficked workers are—and which industries exploit them.
Ima Matul met the President Obama in 2012. It's something she never imagined doing when she was a teenager in Java, Indonesia. In 1997, a relative of the family she worked for approached her with an offer she couldn't refuse: a nannying position in Los Angeles.
It wasn't that much money—$150 a month—but it was more than she was getting paid in Java. Bonus? She wouldn't have to do any paperwork; the man who wanted to hire her said he would take care of the visa, passport, and tickets. All she had to do was say yes. So, she did.
"I took it right away... it was such a great opportunity," she remembers.
When Matul arrived in L.A., the first thing the traffickers did was take away her passport. Within three months of starting her job with the Indonesian-American family, her situation started to deteriorate.
She had no set hours. In addition to her nanny duties, they had her cooking and cleaning. She wasn't allowed to go out alone. If she did go out, it was around the block to walk the dog, or to church with the family. Even at these places, her employers would reel her back in if she spoke to someone, she says. Soon, it became worse: They began beating and verbally abusing her, and she stopped getting paid regularly. They'd brush her off, saying they'd give her a lump sum at the end of her contract of two years. This contract, by the way, was only a verbal one.
Matul was trafficked as domestic help, like many others who come to America at the promise of better opportunities. These people work jobs that cushion our lives with comfort; we're all benefiting from their exploitation and may not even realize it, Matul says. It's a problem that needs to be talked about more.*
"It's happening. People need to know that and start paying attention," she says.
A new report by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University backs up Matul's experience. In the study, researchers gathered data from 122 closed records of trafficked victims in four U.S. cities, and interviewed many of them to understand who they were and how they were exploited. It's only the third government-funded study about labor trafficking, says Colleen Owens, one of the authors.
Owens says the study corrected a lot of assumptions she had going in about who the victims of trafficking are. She thought most of the victims would be unauthorized workers—but, in fact, 71 percent of the cases in their sample set came to America legally through guest worker programs.
A majority, like Matul, were employed as domestic workers. Others could be working in fields, growing food we find in the supermarket; serving us that food at restaurants; or helping build that restaurant to begin with.
"It started to unravel a more systematic nature of how this is happening across different industries that we really began to uncover," Owens says about the report.
Another interesting conclusion was that, though workers from Mexico made up the largest percentage of trafficked workers from any one country, most came from Asia.
But how did they get here in the first place?
The same way Matul did: For 61 percent of the victims, the trafficker was someone they knew through family or friends. Some of these traffickers were American-born, others were from the home countries of the victims, says Owens. They didn't just use false promises and deception but outright coercion get the victims to sign up. (Almost half of Owens' sample reported paying a hefty fee in the thousands to be "recruited.")
Once the victims arrived in America, traffickers controlled their money, the information they received, and leveraged them with familial and financial obligations. This was in addition to physical and verbal threats.
In Matul's case, all of this was true. She was also told that the police were not on her side. (In fact, in 14 percent of cases, the police arrested victims who had come to them for help.) even though she knew what was happening to her was wrong, her limited English skills restricted her and she had no idea where to go for help, she says.
Three years into her ordeal, Matul decided to tell someone. It took months to get her English up to a level where she could write a letter to her neighbor. She says it took her even more time to get up the nerve to deliver it. She was scared they would tell her traffickers, but they didn't.
Instead, her neighbors helped her escape and took her to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) in L.A. She now works there, advocating for the rights of trafficked workers—that's how she met the president.
As for Matul's traffickers, they were never prosecuted; back in 2000, the federal anti-trafficking law hadn't yet gone into effect.
Since then, things have changed.
“This crime of labor trafficking has existed forever, but our laws around it, our language is different,” Owens says. Still, state laws should be strengthened, she recommends. (Both Matul and Owens mentioned the SB 477 California legislation as a good example of a strong state anti-trafficking law.)
The report only looks at "the tip of the iceberg," of labor trafficking victims, Owens says—most remain invisible. She would like to see stronger coordination between federal law enforcement and the Department of Labor to help identify them.
That remains the biggest problem, and it's one that's often on Matul's mind. She looks closely at the people she encounters, even the ones in seemingly innocuous professions—even kids selling candy to raise money for trips.
“Who are the victims?" she asks. "It’s such a hidden crime because you can’t really tell... Anyone can be the victim."
*This article has been updated to include an additional quote from Ima Matul.