Human Rights Watch appreciates the committee’s attention to the pressing and disturbing problem of international trafficking in persons. In consideration of the upcoming review of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 (TVPRA), we would like to share some key findings and recommendations that we believe are central to effective prevention and response.

Human Rights Watch has conducted in-depth research on trafficking and forced labor since 1993, including investigations on abuses against migrant domestic workers in 15 countries over the last five years (Migrant Workers, Trafficking & Forced Labor). Our work covers countries as diverse as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Guatemala, Guinea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Trafficking victims are often economic migrants who are deceived or coerced into situations of forced labor. Contrary to popular belief, human trafficking is not necessarily an underground phenomenon run by criminal syndicates. Instead, trafficking is the clear and visible result of inadequate or faulty government policies that place certain groups of migrants and workers at greater risk of abuse and with little hope for redress. Anti-trafficking efforts must target and reform these policies.

For example, every year, millions of workers from South and Southeast Asia migrate to more prosperous parts of Asia and the Middle East on two-year contracts in domestic work, construction, and agriculture. Unfortunately, many end up in situations of forced labor. These workers typically become heavily indebted to labor recruiters who often deceive them about their work conditions and charge excessive fees. Labor laws in many countries inadequately regulate recruitment practices and exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers, denying them important protections such as a minimum wage, limits on their hours of work, and days off. This creates conditions ripe for labor exploitation.

Deeply indebted and forced to work around the clock, many migrants are further at risk of abuse due to immigration policies that tie a migrant worker’s legal status to his or her employer. This “sponsorship” visa system is common in Asia and the Middle East, and makes it impossible to change employers or even leave the country without the employer’s permission. Running away from abusive working conditions means falling out of legal status and risking arrest, detention, fines, and in some places, imprisonment and caning. Employers routinely take workers’ passports and legal documents away, heightening these risks.

Human Rights Watch recognizes the influential role played by the United States government in promoting anti-trafficking efforts across the globe. We urge Congress to amend the TVPRA to strengthen its effectiveness in addressing root causes of trafficking and forced labor, and to bolster the efforts of governments and private organizations tackling this problem.

This includes evaluating anti-trafficking programs and revisiting provisions of the TVPRA that have had a counterproductive effect. In particular, the TVPRA requires private organizations receiving government funds to pledge their opposition to prostitution as a condition of receiving funds, severely hampering these groups’ ability to work with individuals in prostitution, including those who have been trafficked.

We recommend that the TVPRA be amended to:

  • Address labor and immigration policies that place migrant workers at risk of forced labor and trafficking
  • The US government should encourage states to pass and then enforce comprehensive labor standards for all workers, reform “sponsorship” visa systems, and reform regulation and monitoring of the labor recruitment industry, including recruitment fees. Such efforts should be evaluated as integral components of a country’s anti-trafficking efforts.

  • Incorporate support for research about the links between labor migration and forced labor and independent evaluation of anti-trafficking efforts
  • The US government should invest in research exploring the links between labor laws, immigration policies, and conditions of forced labor and trafficking. Furthermore, government and private anti-trafficking strategies should be subject to independent evaluation for positive and negative impacts.

  • Eliminate the requirement that groups pledge their opposition to prostitution as a condition of receiving anti-trafficking funds
  • Private organizations cannot conduct their work effectively if subject to violations of the right to free speech and if they cannot work freely with all sectors in which trafficking takes place.

Human Rights Watch would be happy to provide more detailed information and recommendations on any of the above.

Sincerely,

Nisha Varia
Senior Researcher
Women’s Rights Division