By: Daniel Schneider

In a seemingly rare showing of bi-partisan cooperation the 114th Congress has shown its ability to work together through support for a number of bills affecting United States domestic human trafficking legislation. It’s important to understand what exactly human trafficking is before focusing on what is being done to end it. US law defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” in two parts, sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking, which exists when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” Labor trafficking which is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

While definitions of trafficking may vary, and other terms, such as modern slavery, are often used to describe the exploitation of persons, under domestic law, the definition above is currently used to describe this exploitation. It is also important to note that US trafficking law does not require a victim to be physically transported from one location to another to be considered a victim of trafficking.

Human trafficking is a global problem that affects an estimated more than 20 million people worldwide. In the United States this number is nearly 18,000 people trafficked into the United States each year with the number of children, youth, and other vulnerable groups at risk of exploitation estimated to be 244,000. While those numbers are important to understand the scope of the problem, it must be noted that identifying the total number of people currently suffering as victims of human trafficking is incredibly difficult especially because of the covert nature of trafficking.

In light of this problem, Congress in the last decade has passed legislation to increase protection for victims of trafficking in the United States. Bills such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, subsequent reauthorizations, and a handful of other laws which make up the bulk of US domestic legislation on human trafficking provide these protections. This legislation focuses US efforts to fight trafficking in a number of areas, such as, protection for victims, investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses, and education of the public.

In the last session of Congress a number of bills were proposed and passed in an effort to increase protection and services for victims of trafficking as well as to further protect vulnerable groups from exploitation. These bills eventually died in the Senate, however, in the 114th Congress the attempt to strengthen US trafficking law found new life. Many of the bills going through Congress this year, focus specifically on child sex trafficking. A number of these focus on improving child welfare systems to better identify victims of sex trafficking, as well as strengthening services for runaway and homeless youth to improve prevention methods by protecting vulnerable youth from becoming victims.

While these improvements are certainly welcome, as any effort to end human trafficking would be, some claim more needs to be done, specifically for other types of trafficking victims. Victims of international and domestic labor trafficking do not receive nearly the same coverage in these bills as child sex trafficking does. While sex trafficking receives more attention, not only from the media, but also in legislation, labor trafficking, in fact, comprises the majority of human trafficking. Victims of labor trafficking in the US are often threatened with violence, deportation, often suffer from unpayable levels of debt, and other forms of coercion. Victims of labor trafficking are often susceptible to being exploited because of vulnerabilities such as immigration status, poverty, and a lack of strong labor protections.

While the new Congress’ focus on ending trafficking is laudable, as is their willingness to work together in a bi-partisan manner to end trafficking, since most of this effort has been spent on sex trafficking rather than labor trafficking. This is concerning because, as mentioned above, most victims of trafficking are victims of labor trafficking, not sex trafficking. Congress should continue to strengthen domestic trafficking legislation. Strong US domestic trafficking laws would set an example for other nations around the world, especially countries which the US State Department considers not in compliance with standards the US has set for combatting trafficking, as reported in the Trafficking in Persons Report published each year. However, more than only addressing sex trafficking, Congress also needs to focus more on labor trafficking and provide a level of services and protections commensurate with the scope of labor trafficking in the US and worldwide . Congress cannot afford to overlook such a significant portion of human trafficking victims and should seek to support all victims by offering protection and services equal to the needs of the victims.