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Reevaluating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is up for reauthorization this year, giving us an opportunity to evaluate the law’s impact. The TVPA outlines how the U.S. government combats human trafficking both at home and abroad—so determining what’s working and what isn’t is essential.

Since the last reauthorization in 2013, just under 15,000 traffickers were convicted worldwide and law enforcement identified nearly 136,000 victims. The International Labour Organization also released a new estimate that traffickers are profiting $150 billion annually—about three times the previous approximation.

{mosads}One of the most concerning new statistics is that while labor trafficking victims represent 68 percent of the estimated 20.9 million victims worldwide, labor trafficking cases have dropped from just 10 percent to only 5 percent of all convictions over the past three years. Labor traffickers are operating with virtual impunity globally.

As the TVPA is due for its fifth reauthorization next September, there are a few things we can do to increase accountability for labor traffickers here at home and around the globe.

The number of labor prosecutions here in the United States has steadily declined from 60 percent of trafficking cases in 2010 to 27 percent in 2014. One reason for the decline is simply resources. The Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU) within the Department of Justice, which houses our nation’s top anti-trafficking prosecutors, has been flat funded for the past six years. Labor trafficking cases take more time to investigate, require more interagency coordination, and are generally a little trickier to prosecute than sex-trafficking cases. The HTPU needs additional financial resources to keep pace with its growing caseload, but it also needs additional staff.

The TVPA should authorize a labor-designated prosecutor in key districts across the country whose entire mandate would be to proactively push for the investigation and prosecution of labor-trafficking cases. This would ensure that current priorities could continue to be met while simultaneously increasing the number of labor prosecutions in the United States.

Turning up accountability for labor traffickers overseas requires stronger enforcement of the new government contracting regulations released in March of 2015. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 and the President’s Executive Order 13627 both require government contractors to develop compliance plans to prevent human trafficking from entering the U.S. government supply chain.

Unfortunately, little is being done to help government contractors understand these new regulations or to meaningfully enforce the new standards. We need designated training and enforcement officers embedded within key agencies that are at risk for encountering human trafficking in their procurement. These officials would provide support to government contractors responsible for implementing the law, centralize the necessary expertise for navigating the regulations, and ensure they are prioritized and enforced.  

Labor trafficking will continue to be an appealing business enterprise for perpetrators until we increase the risks for those who profit from enslaving workers both in the United States and overseas. The TVPA reauthorization gives us an opportunity to make that happen. Hopefully three years from now, the number of labor prosecutions will more closely mirror the percentage of victims who are trafficked for forced labor, disincentivising traffickers from participating in this fundamental violation of human rights.


Febrey is a senior associate for Human Rights First’s Bankrupt Slavery campaign.

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