Skip to content

Combating Forced Labor: Strategic Litigation and Trade Sanctions

March 9, 2020

John Richmond, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and
Combat Trafficking in Persons, recently told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “You’re
more likely to get struck by lightning than prosecuted for engaging in human
.” He is right.  The
International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 20.1 million people are held in forced labor globally
outside the commercial sex industry. But in 2018, governments prosecuted only 457
forced labor cases
in the entire world. 
That is just one forced labor
prosecution for every 43,982 forced labor cases.  Impunity is the norm.

In February 2020, the Human
Trafficking Legal Center
convened the top legal minds behind cutting-edge
forced labor and human trafficking litigation in U.S. federal courts.  In the absence of government political will,
survivors of forced labor have taken their quest for justice into their own
hands.  Survivors and their advocates are
taking corporations and government contractors to court, alleging forced labor violations
in supply chains, the construction industry, on U.S. military bases, and in
corporate immigration detention centers contracted with the U.S. government.

Holding corporations
accountable at home

Daniel Werner, who has litigated complex human trafficking
cases, discussed federal labor trafficking lawsuits detained
immigrants have filed against the GEO Group and CoreCivic
. The defendants
are the two largest private correctional corporations in the United
States.  The exploitation schemes alleged
in the cases are similar those faced by migrant workers in some of the most horrific
labor trafficking cases in the U.S.: barbed wire, withholding of basic
necessities, threats of confinement in isolation. In defense, the prison
companies claim federal anti-trafficking protections simply do not apply to
them. However, these suits, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Towards
Justice, Andrew Free, and other advocates, are succeeding. One appellate court recently
certified a class action that has the potential to include 60,000 immigrant
detainee class members. And just last week, another appellate court ruled that
the detained immigrants are protected by anti-trafficking laws.

On the island of Saipan, part of the
U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, several Chinese
construction companies recruited and employed thousands of Chinese workers to
build the Imperial Pacific casino.  Workers have alleged that their
employers confiscated their passports and threatened them with deportation,
physical harm, and death if they did not work and obey orders. Here, the
federal government did respond: the U.S. Department of Labor
obtained $13.9 million in back wages and damages for over 2,400 victimsSeveral site managers pled guilty to the illegal employment or harboring of
aliens, but no person faced criminal charges for human trafficking and forced
labor. However, seven survivors have now filed a civil lawsuit against two
of the construction companies, as well as the Imperial Pacific casino, alleging
that they were victims of forced labor. The plaintiffs are represented by
attorneys Aaron Halegua and Bruce Berline, based in New York and Saipan,
respectively. The civil case is proceeding, after surviving several of
defendants’ motions to dismiss and motions to stay the proceedings.

Strategic litigation beyond
U.S. shores

Accountability for human trafficking in U.S. federal courts does
not end at the water’s edge. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection
Reauthorization Act of 2008, U.S. courts have jurisdiction over human
trafficking crimes committed outside of the country by U.S. citizens,
green-card holders, and anyone “present” in the United States. The law includes
not only traffickers – but also those who “knowingly benefit” from human

In one groundbreaking case, seven Cambodian men and women
filed a lawsuit against a U.S. company providing shrimp to the U.S. market. The
lawsuit, which also named several other defendants, alleged that the U.S.
corporation knew, or should have known, about forced labor in their seafood
supply chain.  The victims, represented
by Agnieszka Fryszman of the firm Cohen Milstein, also charged that the
corporation financially benefited from forced labor.  Extensive investigative reporting by the AP, the
, and The
New York Times
revealed forced labor and abuse in the seafood industry. Trafficking
victim testimony confirmed that scores of individuals, mainly from Southeast
Asia, were, and still are, forced to work in seafood processing factories.  The case is currently on appeal in the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals.

In another case brought under the Alien Tort Statute, six
survivors of forced labor, represented by Paul L. Hoffman and Terrence
Collingsworth, filed a civil lawsuit against two U.S. corporations, Nestle and
Cargill. The complaint alleged that the companies aided and abetted forced
child labor in the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire. Despite corporate promises and
a voluntary protocol committing to eradicate forced child labor (and all child
labor), the cocoa industry remains rife
with abuse
. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear the case.

Cutting-edge litigation can combine multiple statutes.  Two False Claims Act trafficking cases moving
through federal courts allege that military contractors held U.S. citizens in forced
labor in Kuwait. ManTech International Corp. and DynCorp International LLC won
billion-dollar U.S. contracts to provide, respectively, mechanics and
translators for military operations in the Middle East.  In both cases, the plaintiffs allege that the
defendants confiscated their passports and manipulated their visa status to
coerce them to work against their will.  The
cases, brought by attorney Joseph Hennessey, are proceeding.

Looking Forward

Forced labor in global supply chains is a feature, not a
bug. Still, more than twenty years after the passage of sweeping federal
trafficking laws in the United States, traffickers operate with impunity. The
U.S. government has never prosecuted
a forced labor case under the extraterritorial provisions of the federal
trafficking law. It has fallen to the private bar – pro bono and public
interest lawyers – to battle forced labor in supply chains. 

February’s strategic litigation convening revealed that the lawyers tackling these issues head-on are creative, brilliant, and relentless. Sadly, they are not well-funded. The courageous survivors who are demanding justice and their extraordinary lawyers cannot do it alone. Governments – and donors – must step up to eradicate forced labor in supply chains around the globe. Accountability is within reach. 

Sarah Bessell is Senior Staff Attorney at the Human Trafficking Legal Center.

Written by
Human Trafficking Legal Center