Q&A with Denise Brennan

Brennan author photo smallDenise Brennan is is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Georgetown University. Her new book, Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, is a riveting account of life in and after trafficking and a forceful call for meaningful immigration and labor reform. 

First of all, can you give a brief description of trafficking into forced labor? Why don’t trafficked persons simply leave—as many migrant laborers do—when working conditions get really bad? Why can’t they just walk away?

 I see trafficking into forced labor as one end of a continuum of everyday forms of migrant labor exploitation. Some trafficking cases are clearly at one end of the continuum. Guards with guns and locks on doors are obvious signs of violent coercion, but most of the workers I met were not physically restrained. I met many workers who did not walk out unlocked doors—for example, domestic workers who did not leave while their abusers were at work. What kept them there? A lot of things: promises of payment, language barriers, lies about corrupt police, and fears about unknown dangers in the United States. And to what would they be running? Abusive employers take their passports, withhold payment, and restrict their contact with the outside world. Without any identification, money, contacts—or even seasonally appropriate clothes—workers in situations of forced labor feel isolated and alone.

978-0-8223-5633-2_pr What I learned speaking with men and women who were in forced labor in low-wage labor sectors is that everyone perceives exploitation differently. Simply put, what scares some does not scare others. That’s where individual perception of risk and harm comes in. Every individual experiences coercion subjectively. This subjectivity of coercion explains, in part, why the U.S. government has issued so few trafficking visas (T visas). Attorneys have to prove coercion—they have to explain why their clients did not walk out unlocked doors.

 In the book you mention that trafficked persons sometimes labor side-by-side with other migrant laborers. How do you tell the difference between a migrant worker who has been trafficked into forced labor and a migrant worker in a low-wage, exploitative job? In other words, what are the telltale signs of extreme labor exploitation v. run-of-the-mill exploitation?

Trafficking happens in work sites where exploitation of migrants is commonplace. Extreme abuse can blend into everyday forms of abuse. Wage theft—not paying overtime, or agreed-upon wages—for example is rampant in low-wage labor sectors. Migrant workers, especially those new to the United States with limited English and little knowledge of their rights, expect and accept a certain degree of exploitation. This book looks at the tipping point between everyday forms of exploitation, and abuse that goes too far. What is that tipping point? Neighbors and co-workers should question why, for example, domestic workers never seem to leave their employers’ house, or why farmworkers never go into town. Peer outreach workers describe meeting fellow workers who are fearful of attending any of their organizations’ events or meetings. This is a sure sign that these workers' employers are monitoring them—even in their downtime.

The book’s focus is on rebuilding a life in the United States after forced labor. Yet, as the reader might expect, you also have a lot to say about their experiences during their time in forced labor. How does their time in forced labor affect them?

Remarkably, the women and men I met are emphatic that their time in forced labor has changed them—but does not stop them. Often they are angry about the time and money that their abusers stole from them. Some have nightmares and flashbacks. But they are clear that they look ahead, not behind them.

You emphasize that formerly trafficked persons generally live in poverty. How is this different from other new migrants who live in low-income neighborhoods and work in low-wage jobs?

Life Interrupted’s main focus is on how trafficked persons rebuild their lives. They struggle. They not only have to deal with traumatic events of the past, but they also enter the ranks of the working poor. They do so alone, without family or friends to offer support. This is what differentiates them from other low-wage migrants: trafficked persons resettle on their own, not as part of a larger community. Those who were exploited by somebody from their home country often strategically avoid neighborhoods and jobs with co-ethnics. It can be dangerous to live in a community where your abuser, or his or her associates, may still be at-large. And, most trafficked persons do not even know a single other person who was trafficked, so they do not have the opportunity to learn from others who have been through similar experiences.

In what ways are men and women's experiences in forced labor different?

They aren’t. What has been different is the level of media and policy attention on women's exploitation in the sex sector. In fact in many instances “trafficking” has been used interchangeably with “sex trafficking.” The book introduces women who were brutally exploited in the sex sector. But we also meet many other women and men who also were brutally exploited in farm work, factory work, domestic work and restaurant work. It is just not possible to measure exploitation or to posit that exploitation in one labor sector is worse than in another.

This conflation of trafficking with sex trafficking helps explain why so few trafficking visas have been issued to date. Since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000, fewer than 4000 persons have been awarded trafficking visas. The legislation allows for 5000 visas to be issued every year. This means we could have issued 65,000 visas by now. Why have so few been issued? I argue that the number remains low because law enforcement has focused its efforts on finding exploited workers in only one sector: the sex sector. In the process, many women who are not trafficked are arrested and deported if they are undocumented. These policies have driven sex workers to work underground, rendering already vulnerable workers even more vulnerable. Clearly we could be doing more to find and protect exploited workers across low-wage labor sectors, without harming those who choose to work in the sex sector.

What can be done to reduce the incidence of forced labor in the United States? What is the best strategy?

Trafficking into forced labor is preventable. Holding international temporary labor recruiters and employers accountable is a first step. They must guarantee that their workers’ labor contracts are fair. These contracts should be free of excessive (and bogus) recruiting fees and provide decent wages and overtime pay. Also, a worker’s visa status should not be tied to one employer. If a migrant worker is being exploited (or witnesses coworkers or neighbors being exploited) he or she needs to feel safe to report abuse. I never met a trafficked person who knew about the T visa while they were in forced labor. Rather, they only find out about the TVPA and the protections it offers after they exit forced labor. Most undocumented migrants — and temporary workers (guest workers) — assume that if they come forward to report any kind of abuse they risk arrest and deportation.

At the end of Life Interrupted I outline some basic policy steps to prevent trafficking such as passing immigration reform, monitoring worker recruitment programs, closing the Fair Labor Standard Act (fsla) loophole that excludes some agricultural workers and care workers in private homes, supporting domestic workers’ bill of rights introduced in state legislatures, ending immunity for diplomats who abuse workers in their employ,and rescinding state- and local-level law enforcement policies.

 So immigration reform is intimately tied up with preventing trafficking?

 The U.S. government’s policies on trafficking are nothing short of schizophrenic. Without meaningful immigration reform that protects workers in all labor sectors from abuse, threat, and retaliation, trafficking into forced labor will continue. At the same time that abuse is rampant and unfettered in certain industries (such as in agriculture), migrants also face racial profiling in their communities. Policies and programs that deputize local police to enforce federal immigration law, along with Arizona-style, state-level anti-immigrant legislation, keep migrants from reporting all kinds of crimes and abuse in their neighborhoods and worksites.

 Trafficking into forced labor is an extreme version of what happens in sites where low-wage migrants work every day. The 4000 T visas issued thus far are clearly a drop in the bucket. These are the exceptions to an otherwise punitive immigration regime. It is a fiction to assert that we are truly fighting trafficking when 11 million individuals live and work in the shadows. If we are serious about fighting trafficking, we would end policies that silence migrants. Employers know they can exploit with impunity. I think the shockingly low number of T visas says it all. On one hand law enforcement tries to reach out to the most extremely exploited workers, while, on the other, they simultaneously look for undocumented migrants. One set of polices undoes the other. Finding more workers in situations of forced labor means offering protections—not handcuffs.

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