Child Labor Exploitation Not Often Easy to Recognize

Elizabeth Goatley


Child Labor Exploitation Not Often Easy to Recognize | Elizabeth Goatley, Child Labor, Human Trafficking, Supply Chain

We often assume that ... we don't have a child labor problem in the U.S., but studies show that the most vulnerable population to be exploited in this area are our undocumented migrant workers, Goatley writes.

Her name was Iesha. We met on a train leaving the airport. It was her bright eyes and wide smile that drew my attention.

We discussed her excitement about entering high school and that it meant that she got to take a break from working.

We joked about after-school jobs and what she would spend her money on, and that's when she looked me in the eye and explained, "Oh, no. I give my papa all my money. We don't get to keep it. If I keep any of it, I will get in trouble."

Iesha could tell the answer surprised me. She lowered her eyes and leaned against the back wall.

I tried to reconcile if she meant that she voluntarily relinquished her wages or if it was mandated. As I was getting up the nerve to ask, an older man ushered Iesha off the train. It was her stop.

I would never see Iesha again, but that was the day that I learned that human trafficking, especially trafficking of minors, also included child labor trafficking.

I was introduced to labor trafficking early in my professional career, but it only dealt with adults.

Through trainings, it was often emphasized that children were more prone to the commercial sexual exploitation of human trafficking. Few trainings were provided on how to identify children involved on the child labor side of human trafficking.

Here's essentially how the United Nations defines trafficking of human persons: People are trafficked if they are recruited, transported, transferred, harbored or are received by another person by means of threat, use of force or any other means of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception or the abuse of power or position of vulnerability. Trafficking also occurs if another person gives or receives payment or benefits to achieve consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation.

Exploitation includes forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude.

So what does all of that mean?

If a person is the transaction between any two people for the purposes of exploiting them, it has the potential to be an instance of human trafficking. This includes those who are forced, coerced or threatened into forced labor, slavery or domestic servitude.

For children, internationally this can look like forced enlistment into armed services, forced labor markets, sweatshops, farming or a myriad of other labor in which the child is not receiving payment or is mandated to work off their bounty.

Domestically, it might look like underage children working as day laborers on farms or agricultural fields, working in massage parlors or restaurants where they don't receive payment, aren't free to leave or work in unsafe environments.

As my understanding of child labor trafficking increases, I understand why it's difficult to identify a child that's being forced into child labor. There aren't many noticeable identifiers to the "untrained" eye.

We don't often ask those that provide our services if they are voluntarily working or in a forced labor environment, but according to Polaris Project on Human Trafficking, 14.2 million people are trapped in forced labor industries.

Additionally, 139 goods were identified as being made by forced child labor by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Just as child victims of sex trafficking have been hidden in plain sight, child victims of labor trafficking have been a complete oversight.

We often assume that because of our strict domestic child labor laws, we don't have a child labor problem in the U.S., but studies show that the most vulnerable population to be exploited in this area are our undocumented migrant workers.

We must begin to question what we are doing to ensure that no one, especially children, is forced to work in modern-day slavery.

I'll never forget my encounter with Iesha and how I was unprepared to ensure that she wasn't in a forced labor environment.

It's my hope and prayer that as we shed light on the role of child labor and its involvement with human trafficking, we will all be better prepared if we encounter a child that trusts us enough to say that they are being forced to work for little or no pay or are in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. If such an encounter occurs, we must be ready to take the appropriate steps to ensure their safety.

Elizabeth Goatley is an assistant professor of social work in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She researches community responses to human trafficking. You can follow her on Twitter at @AskDrLiz

Editor's note: This article is published in connection with the U.N. World Day Against Child Labor (June 12). It is the second of a two-part series. Part one by Marilyn Turner-Triplett is available here.