How to Spot Human Trafficking in the Construction Industry

Construction companies can identify possible labor trafficking and modern-day slavery by understanding points of vulnerability, including recruitment, H2-2B visas, and subcontracting and small-scale businesses.
By Annalisa Enrile
June 1, 2019

In a Los Angeles strip mall, a nail shop was closed for construction, undergoing major repairs. The manager of the property noticed four workers onsite who seemed particularly young. One night, leaving work late, he noticed there was still a light on inside, and when he investigated, he found the four workers living there. Later, it would be revealed that they were workers trafficked from Vietnam the way most are trafficked in the construction industry—through corrupt recruiters and exploitative subcontractors.

Situations like this can be common in the United States but hidden in the shadows. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates about 40.3 million people (almost a 100% increase from just two years ago) are trafficked internationally. Most labor trafficking in the United States occurs in the construction, manufacturing and mining industries, according to the ILO. However, promising work in transparency and technology is helping fight modern-day slavery and labor trafficking.

California based non-profit organization ASSET, for example, identified the importance of transparency as early as 2007 and worked to co-sponsor game-changing legislation—the Transparency in Supply Chains Act. This first-of-its-kind law inspired the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Law of 2015, which broadened the definitions of which companies must file transparency statements to include any company doing business in the United Kingdom. This includes construction companies. Both laws are important steps in identifying supply chains and making corporate practices transparent.

In addition to legal reforms, construction executives and other industry stakeholders can help protect against labor trafficking by staying vigilant toward signs that may indicate worker exploitation. Company leaders can look out for points of vulnerability including corrupt recruiters, unknown subcontractors and small-scale businesses, and expired H-2B visas.


Ohio State University found the construction industry is growing the fastest in the Middle East and Africa—areas with the highest labor trafficking rates in construction, globally. OSU studied the use of the internet as a vehicle for recruiters to access laborers, particularly those who are migrants. Unscrupulous recruiters will use the internet for advertising jobs and luring workers into thinking they are working in legitimate construction companies, but in reality they will be exploited and trafficked.

Look out for recruiters who charge exorbitant fees, take away workers’ papers or continue to take a percentage of wages even after workers have been matched.

Subcontractors and Small-scale businesses

Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization, details in its latest report that much of the labor trafficking in the construction industry occurs within small private projects and specialty subcontracting companies that perform electrical, masonry or roofing work. The fact that subcontractors answer only to hired contractors and not necessarily owners or developers creates pockets of labor that are vulnerable to trafficking.

Be wary of subcontractors that do not name all of their employees or provide standard benefits. Further, most of the workers may be classified as independent contractors, which means they have fewer protections or benefits. Small-scale projects in private homes or on private properties can be harder to regulate than commercial or public projects.

H-2B Visas

H-2B visas ( allow U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States for non-agricultural jobs. Migrant workers with non-immigrant classification may legally apply for and obtain this type of visa to perform temporary, seasonal work.

The system is ripe for abuse. In its report, Hidden in Plain Sight, the Urban Institute states more than 70% of those who were victims of labor trafficking entered the United States with lawful visas. The challenge arises when the visa expires after three years; even though workers may have entered the country legally, thousands end up undocumented.

Keeping up-to-date paperwork can help mitigate labor trafficking. Construction-specific software allows contractors to record, track and update workers' documents and provide transparency.

social responsibility

In the past, many companies avoided engaging in discussions around corrupt supply chains, recruiters or subcontractors, and the sensitive issue of labor trafficking.

Companies today are focusing on becoming more socially responsible and making a difference in changing the world for the better. In the construction industry, several leaders are launching their own initiatives and projects aimed at preventing and intervening against worker abuses. Corporations, government partnerships and human trafficking task forces also are collaborating to end this epidemic and save the lives of millions of people.

by Annalisa Enrile
Dr. Annalisa Enrile is a Clinical Professor at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Dr. Enrile has been working in the anti-trafficking movement since 1993 as a researcher, advocate, activist and practitioner.

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