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Forced Labor: Myths and Facts

When I first started learning about human trafficking, forced labor was a tough concept to accept. It’s one thing to think of some vague form of “human trafficking” happening somewhere out there in the world. But when I realized that I was personally contributing to modern-day slavery by the clothes I was wearing, the coffee I was drinking, and the food I was eating, I knew I had to make a change.

As much as I didn’t (and don’t) want to believe it, forced labor exists in alarming numbers in the world today. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO),  there are about 20 million victims of Forced Labor (excluding sexual exploitation) in the world today—that’s half of all victims of human trafficking. 

So what do we do know about forced labor and what can we do to fight it? 

Forced labor defined

The ILO defines forced labor as “work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”

This means that while victims of forced labor may be kept in their situations by violence or force, they are more often held by subtler tactics. Sometimes they are held in debt bondage with the (false) promise that they will one day be able to pay back a fabricated debt. Sometimes they are held in forced domestic servitude by the threat that if they leave, the authorities will be informed that they are in the country illegally. Regardless of the tactics used to keep them there, any time a person is performing work against their will because of some kind of threat, intimidation, force,  or coercion, it is forced labor.

Myths about forced labor

Myth: Forced Labor only happens in developing countries 

Fact: While forced labor is more likely to happen in countries where laws are not as consistently enforced, forced labor does take place in restaurants, farms, homes, nail salons, and other places throughout the US.

I’ve shared the story of a case of forced labor that happened just a couple of years ago in a nearby restaurant in my small town. One of the women in this case lived at the restaurant, was prevented from making phone calls in English, and was often restrained by physical force. This woman was finally able to escape when a customer noticed the warning signs and helped her get out and get help.

It is important that we all realize that forced labor can and does happen around us. When our eyes are open for red flags, it just may make a difference one day.

Myth: Forced Labor only happens in illegal or underground industries

Fact: Sex trafficking naturally gets a lot of attention in the human trafficking conversation, but there are an estimated 4 times as many cases of forced labor than sex trafficking in the world today. These cases of forced labor take place in legal industries—on farms, in restaurants, factories, construction places, factories, and more.

Since these cases are taking place in legal industries, traffickers find ways to work around laws or avoid authorities altogether. Since much forced labor happens in the developing world where anti-slavery laws are in place but not enforced, it’s often not hard to continue on with illegal work practices in these legal industries.

What we can do to fight forced labor 

Know the signs. As you go about your daily routine, keep in mind the signs that labor violations are taking place. This might include someone living at their place of employment, being prevented from speaking to others, or appearing overly fearful and submissive. Check out some more red flags here. 

If you see suspicious activity, report it. In the U.S., the national human trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Outside the U.S., you can find your country’s human trafficking hotline here

Shop Ethically. Diverting your money away from unethical companies who turn a blind eye to forced labor in their supply chain is possibly the biggest way you can fight against forced labor. Instead, give your money to businesses who use it responsibly—paying their employees fairly, investing in communities in the developing world, and working toward building a better world.  

Also make sure you check out this resource from the Department of Labor when you’re shopping for items you can’t find on DoneGood. It may be especially helpful when you’re grocery shopping!

Give. Give to organizations who are working to prevent forced labor situations by educating vulnerable individuals, training law enforcement, and bringing criminals to justice. There are dozens of great organizations doing this, but Polaris Project, International Justice Mission, and Dressember are great places to start.

Where does DoneGood fit in? 

DoneGood wants to make it easy for you to spend your money with businesses that say “no” to forced labor in their supply chains.

As we continue to raise the demand for ethically-produced products, we believe that other businesses will follow suit and commit to more thoughtful business practices.

All DoneGood approved brands are committed to ethical sourcing and radical transparency. For a few that are specifically out to end forced labor, check out Able,  Known Supply, and Ten Thousand Villages.


Erin King
DoneGood Contributor

Writer, editor, and all-around language enthusiast who 
uses her love of words to help others.


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