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National Human Trafficking Prevention Month

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a time for the Federal government to reaffirm its commitment to stop and prevent trafficking from occurring. Human trafficking often takes the form of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery and is an anathema to our democracy, our society, and our economy.

The International Labour Organization—an agency of the United Nations that brings together governments, employers, and workers—estimates that 27.6 million people worldwide are forced to work against their will each day. Tragically, human trafficking occurs in every industry and in every country, including the United States.

Human traffickers force, defraud, or coerce others to perform labor or services, exploiting their subjects for profit. Those who are trafficked are treated as property rather than persons, and they are often subjected to threats, physical violence, and isolation. Many are denied access to identification, travel, or financial documents, as well as pay, benefits, or medication.

At the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), we have a unique, but critical, role in helping to eradicate human trafficking. A person who markets, trades, sells, solicits, or buys the forced labor or services of another often not only violates the criminal laws prohibiting human trafficking itself, but also the civil laws—enforced by the EEOC—prohibiting employment discrimination because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, or sexual orientation), national origin, age, and disability. These laws ensure that all persons performing labor and services are consistently and systematically treated fairly, justly, and impartially. They also apply regardless of a person’s immigration status or employment authorization.  

The U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons recently noted that the very existence of discrimination “create[s] disparities in access to economic means or opportunities, which traffickers exploit to compel victims . . . .” It also observed that “human trafficking still mirrors—and thrives because of—widespread inequities . . . .” Put another way, human traffickers tend to target those who are vulnerable and who have been marginalized because of discrimination. 

In addition, traffickers often engage in employment discrimination themselves by treating workers in one group worse than those in another by segregating them, isolating them, restricting their movement, underpaying them, and subjecting them to conditions that are more dangerous or harsh. Traffickers may also subject workers to harassment, particularly those with intellectual, developmental, or mental impairments.

For instance, a shipbuilder that kept workers from India in unsanitary, guarded camps—and charged them $1,050 to live in shipping containers with up to 23 other workers—violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination because of race and national origin. After suing the shipbuilder, the EEOC obtained an estimated $5 million for about 476 workers. That case— EEOC v. Signal International, LLC—is one of many in which the EEOC has obtained monetary and nonmonetary relief for survivors of human trafficking.

As momentous as the problem of human trafficking is, it is not insurmountable. At the EEOC, we continue to work to fulfill our role in President Biden’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. In so doing, we investigate charges and complaints—and litigate cases—involving workers who have survived human trafficking. And in addition to developing our own capacity to recognize human trafficking, we have worked to develop the public’s capacity to do so, as well—in the last fiscal year alone, we held 107 events on human trafficking, which reached 6,559 people. We also continue to create and circulate materials and guidance that address trafficking and related issues. Through our partnerships both within and outside government, we work to ensure that all those harmed by—and striving to end—human trafficking understand the relationship between the criminal human trafficking laws and the civil employment discrimination laws we enforce, so that they can seek and obtain our support.

Human trafficking is a stain on a society, like ours, that cherishes liberty. No person should be forced to provide labor or services for another against their will. The EEOC is deeply committed to ensuring that all those who work are treated with dignity and respect.


Charlotte A. Burrows (she/her/hers)


U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission