Coercive Relationships and Forced Labor in America

Individuals working in forced labor are oftentimes in coercive relationships with their captors which can lead to a fear of escape.
By Denise Brennan
August 2014
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Author Denise Brennan introduces survivors of human trafficking, and recounts the flight from their abusers and their efforts to rebuild their lives. Life Interrupted (Duke University Press, 2014) links these firsthand accounts to the global economic inequities, as well as under-regulated and unprotected workplaces that regularly exploit migrant workers in America. The following excerpt, from Chapter 2, specifically looks at the coercive relationships that exist between those trafficked into forced labor and their abusers.

Coercive Relationships in Human Trafficking

Young Women and Older Men
In many trafficking cases, men (usually in their twenties and early thirties) seduce young girls (in their mid- to late teens) and woo them with romance to eventually channel them into forced labor. A social worker in California has observed that the “nature of the relationship between young women and older men looks like that of domestic violence. This is a personal relationship, and it is very different from trafficking cases that involve strangers.” Young women’s frustration with their own family’s restrictions on them often prepares them to accept the promises of these men. They cite problems with their father—in particular, their father’s patriarchal control and rules—as driving them out of the house. As one woman from Mexico explained, “My father was coming from another time. I couldn’t wait to get out of his house.” “They want to do something on their own,” asserts a social worker with a number of Mexican clients in New York. “But they are young. In many cases they are not actually that interested in these men but are eager to get out of their parents’ home.”

These relationships can quickly take an abusive turn. The New York-based social worker has clients who were raped the first night they were away from their parents. The young women, she explains, “blame themselves for not listening to their parents.” Years after not heeding her parents’ warnings about her “boyfriend” who trafficked her into forced labor, one young woman from Mexico carries her regret with her. She feels an overwhelming debt to her parents since she ignored their counsel and casts her current struggles to resettle in the United States as a kind of test or punishment for being so rash. Formerly trafficked persons of all ages express anger over the time their abusers stole from them, but younger individuals can be particularly eager to recapture this lost time—and their youth. Gladys, who was trafficked in her late teens from Mexico into forced domestic labor in the Midwest, angrily declared that her abuser “destroyed a big part of my life.” Although he is now in jail, Gladys is clear that his sentence “is nothing compared to what he did in my life.”

Imagining one’s boyfriend or husband as a potential trafficker is difficult for anyone; who could foresee that one’s partner is weaving an elaborate trap to eventually make money from one’s labor? The journalist Benjamin Skinner tells a story of a young woman getting into her boyfriend’s car in eastern Europe just moments after her mother handed her a safe-migration pamphlet from the antitrafficking NGO La Strada warning of the “loverboy phenomenon.” Suspicious of the boyfriend and well aware of patterns of trafficking into forced sexual labor in their country, the mother had prepared for foul play. Her daughter, perhaps in love, and in need of a job in Holland that the boyfriend had promised would finance the remainder of her university studies, waved the pamphlet away. Once on the road, away from the protection of her family, the young woman was forced by this man into sexual labor.

Nanci too tells a story of falling in love and believing false promises. Growing up in a small rural community in Mexico, she had not planned on traveling to the United States. Her family, which included eight brothers and sisters, lived hand-to-mouth making bricks. In her late teens Nanci met an older man (he was thirty-two). Her parents were impressed by his family, who ran a successful store in a nearby town. He showered her with presents and took her out to restaurants and dance clubs. She fell in love and was excited by his plans for them. He paid a coyote for them to travel to Los Angeles. But soon after they arrived in the United States, he started treating her harshly. Almost overnight he changed from loving boyfriend to cruel captor. They crossed the country to New York City, where he moved her between different brothels. Knowing no one in the United States, Nanci realized that she had to help herself. I recounted earlier how she took advantage of her unsuspecting boyfriend’s confidence in his control over her as well as his presumption of her passivity by phoning the police when he sent her unaccompanied on an errand. Because of her age and lack of familiarity with the United States, he had counted on Nanci remaining in fear and always returning to him.

Coercion through Domestic Violence
When men manipulate ties of intimacy to force women into work, domestic violence usually permeates their relationships. Sofia, a mother of two small children in Mexico, was regularly beaten by her husband who demanded that she work in the sex trade in Tijuana. “We never had a lot of money. It was very difficult. My kids outgrew their clothes. When there was a hole in the front of my son’s shoe, I cut the front of the shoe off so that he could still wear it. My husband had been asking me to work in prostitution. He said we could make a lot of money. I said, ‘Why don’t you work?’ He never worked. But we needed basic things: clothes, rent, food. I came to realize I had to work in prostitution. And the beatings got stronger. Especially when he was drunk. Over time the beatings were anytime for any reason.” Sofia relented and worked in Tijuana’s sex trade for five years, while family members raised her children. “They were hard years. I would work six months and return home for a month. My husband would hit me. Always. He drank and took drugs. Eventually he wanted me to go to the United States. He wanted more money, not me. He said, ‘I promise it will only be one year. Then you’ll come home.’ He arranged for me to go with a coyote.”

Sofia diligently sent money home regularly from the United States. She earned a substantial sum over the course of a few years; she had sent home over $130,000 and kept all the wire transfer receipts to prove it. She shook her head, explaining that her husband “had a great time with my money.” He spent it all: he built a couple of stores and a gym and paid off debts to shady business associates. When women migrate internationally for work and remit money to family members at home, they can only hope that their family members will keep their promises to save the money or spend it on their children. Sofia’s husband did more than live large off her earnings: “[He] turned my children against me. They refused to speak to me when I called.” Their relationship remains strained today. Convinced her husband will kill her if given the chance, she fears returning to Mexico to see her children. She ignored his urgings for her to come home one Christmas. “I made excuses,” she laughed. “I said, ‘I’ll be there in January.’ And it went by. I said at that point that I had to stay in the United States because of passport issues. He was very angry.” She laughed with pride, recounting how she evaded her husband and his beatings. It is an uncomfortable reality that, in Sofia’s calculation, she had to leave her children behind in order to stay alive. Afraid of her husband’s long reach to New York City, she also avoids certain neighborhoods where he has friends. She takes precautions in her new home to keep safe from the violence of her old home. Even after forced labor has ended for her, she still lives with the fear of being brutalized.

Coercion through Family Business and Towns’ Economies
Trafficking into forced labor can become a way of life in places where corruption thrives and builds on the normalization of abuse of women, children, and the poor. Social workers throughout the United States describe clients from towns in Mexico, for example, where many families are involved in trafficking. In these towns, falling in love can be dangerous, and romantic relationships that become abusive can involve more than one abuser; the abusive partner’s family members may be complicit as well. In these cases, individuals in forced labor cannot trust anyone with whom they come into contact since their partner’s mother, father, sisters and brothers, extended family, and other girlfriends maintain the conditions of threat and coercion. Trafficking into forced labor is a family business with roles for everyone. Within these ties of familial intimacy, there can be grotesque cruelty. I spoke with a few women whose husbands took them back to the men’s home communities in Mexico when the women were about to give birth. Their husbands’ mothers took these women’s babies immediately following their delivery. The abuser and his family would then use these babies as a form of collateral—a twisted means to induce these bereft mothers to continue working under their control and to stay silent.

It is difficult to make sense of this involvement of multiple members of a family; it can be easier to grasp one individual’s greed or particular penchant for cruelty. Women from these towns who remain separated from their children point to rampant and entrenched corruption and violence unprosecuted by the authorities. Sofia, for example, comes from a town in Mexico that has become known as a “sending” community into trafficking, where corrupt local officials and law enforcement turn a blind eye to and profit from spectacular forms of lawbreaking. Sofia says that nearly every family has a member who is touched by trafficking, either as an abuser or as a victim of abuse: “In my town everyone is somehow involved. Husbands, sons, uncles, grandfathers.” In these towns, individuals learn to justify control of others. Young boys talk about growing up and pimping girls. Sofia was shaken to hear that her young son was parroting what his father and his father’s associates talk about. Her son had boasted to Sofia’s sister that when he grows up, he was “not going to work” but rather would “have a few girls do the work.” Horrified, his aunt prodded, “And what if they do not want to work for you?” Without hesitation he replied, “Then I will beat them.”


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States by Denise Brennan and published by Duke University Press, 2014.


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