Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
There’s an ugly truth about what powers the United States economy, says Melissa Hope Ditmore. Our economic system depends on exploited labor and forced work that often meets the definition of human trafficking, asserts the sociologist and consultant on sex work, migration, and trafficking. In her new book, Unbroken Chains: The Hidden Role of Human Trafficking in the American Economy, Ditmore shows how people are “being trafficked into major sectors across the American economy: agriculture, manufacturing, sales, the sex trades, and domestic work.”
Stronger labor laws protecting workers could effectively tackle this exploitation, says Ditmore. But she finds that most lawmakers seem satisfied with lip service around ending human trafficking, while the policies they support maintain the status quo.
The issue of human trafficking began entering mainstream discourse just over a decade ago. In 2011, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to declare January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month. President Joe Biden has continued the practice, publishing a recent proclamation that contends “agencies across the Federal Government are working to combat human trafficking.”
But Ditmore argues that this public focus is often too limited in scope, since “most coverage of human trafficking focuses on the sex industry and sexual servitude, or sex trafficking.”
“There was nothing looking at forced labor, uncompensated labor, forms of human trafficking through American history,” she says. “I wanted to fill that gap.” So she wrote Unbroken Chains.
In her book, Ditmore, who has worked as a consultant on trafficking for the United Nations, makes a direct link between historical forms of human trafficking—such as chattel slavery and forced Chinese contract labor—and contemporary forms of trafficked labor that presidents and pundits focus on today. She says the form of exploitation most prevalent in the present day is “indentured servitude in which people sign on, in some cases, to work to guarantee their future labor.”
But then, “sometimes people think they’ve got a good job and a good job offer and then they get somewhere and they realize the conditions are very different,” she explains.
Ditmore finds that domestic and agricultural workers are among the most likely to fall victim to this sort of bait and switch and end up in situations that can be defined as human trafficking. She profiled several trafficking survivors in her book, including Nena Ruiz, a Filipino domestic worker who accused her employer of abusing her and won a $825,000 settlement.
Women like Ruiz, especially from the Global South, often arrive in the U.S. for domestic work with a well-defined job description in mind. But then, Ditmore says, they find that “their jobs expanded to include every waking moment,” and sometimes beyond, with employers demanding that workers perform job duties in the middle of the night, or far outside agreed-upon working hours.
But modern human trafficking is not limited to women. Ditmore points to the example of immigrant laborers brought in to clean up the damage from Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region. Those workers, predominantly South Asian men, were highly educated and skilled. “They were kept in segregated camps, segregated by national origin,” says Ditmore. “They were not fed enough, they were expected to work very long days in dangerous conditions without the protective gear.” Additionally, the lifting of regulations in 2005 allowed the private corporations hiring these workers to pay less than the average local wages. So in 2007, the workers marched to Washington, D.C., to call attention to their exploitation—only to find that the local trafficking task force “was concerned that they had not met the definition of trafficking,” as Ditmore describes.
Ditmore suggests that current political attention on human trafficking is performative rather than practical. In Unbroken Chains, she returns repeatedly to the fact that federal legislation specific to human trafficking has not actually helped victims of human trafficking. “We had laws against every aspect of trafficking before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000,” she says. “There are laws against kidnapping. There are labor laws. There are laws against harming people. There are laws against threatening people.”
What is inadequate are the labor laws and regulations protecting people in agricultural and domestic work specifically, Ditmore says. Political will to change those labor laws also appears to be inadequate, as Ditmore discovered when she was working as part of a team advocating to strengthen such laws in Washington, D.C. When she met with legislators’ aides, she says she realized lawmakers were “not actually going to back anything to promote workers’ rights. But they were very eager to get their names on a bill about sex trafficking.”
“I found it very frustrating, but also a very good education,” says Ditmore. It was a reminder that “the exploitation of labor, and trying to get more than you have paid for … has always been part of business in the United States.”
Ditmore thinks a stronger labor movement can best address the trafficked labor on which the U.S. economy relies. She is encouraged by the growing strength and prevalence of worker-led unions in recent years. “The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida does a great job with agricultural workers, and they’re expanding around the country,” says Ditmore.
Ultimately, Ditmore believes “a stronger labor movement in the United States would lead to less exploitation overall—including less of the worst situations that we see, which meet the definition of trafficking.”
Sonali Kolhatkar joined YES! in summer 2021, building on a long and decorated career in broadcast and print journalism. She is an award-winning multimedia journalist, and host and creator of YES! Presents: Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. She is also Senior Correspondent with the Independent Media Institute’s Economy for All project where she writes a weekly column. She is the author of Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (2023) and Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (2005). Her forthcoming book is called Talking About Abolition (Seven Stories Press, 2025). Sonali is co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women’s Mission which she helped to co-found in 2000. She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. Sonali reflects on “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host” in her 2014 TEDx talk of the same name.