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.

| August 2014

  • Eager to get out of their parents' homes, many trafficked persons find themselves in coercive relationships that lead them into forced labor.
    Photo by Fotolia/silent_47
  • “Life Interrupted” by Diane Brennan is a riveting account of life in and after trafficking that calls for meaningful immigration and labor reform.
    Cover courtesy Duke University Press

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.

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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.