Stay at Hope: Understanding and Responding to Human Trafficking During Coronavirus


There are so many ways to reflect on the last few months and how we will respond to the COVID-19 crisis in the months to come. We have witnessed how interconnected humans are, how our actions (and forced inaction) affect the earth and the environment, and how fragile our economy is. We have suffered previously unimaginable deaths in the US and experienced the effects of isolation on our mental health. But we have also seen incredible acts of kindness, bravery, and selflessness that bring millions of people outside to cheer each day around the world.

Embracing the Range of Emotions Brought on By a Global Crisis

As the fog starts to lift from a long April, I’m left with almost simultaneous feelings of contradictory emotions:

I am grateful.

My family and friends are healthy and safe. I have shelter and food (and plenty of toilet paper). 

I am angry.

The stark contrast of those who have and those who have not laid bare by this crisis is almost too much to hold. Oppression is present in every news story, in every cry for help – the inequity is palpable.

I am afraid.

Who is next to fall sick, will they have access to care? Will they be tested, will they even be counted?

I am hopeful.

Conversations that seemed impossible a few months ago are being reported in mainstream media. People of color are disproportionately affected by this virus and for the first time in my adult life, many people in power are asking why. 

Heightened Global Inequities and Longstanding Vulnerabilities at Home

As I watch the human toll of the fragile economies of developing countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh collapsing under the pressure of lack of demand for goods from wealthier countries; migrants fleeing starvation in Venezuela and suffering xenophobia in neighboring Colombia; already marginalized native peoples in Brazil overcome by the virus – I wonder if this increased attention to inequity will finally allow us see what’s been happening to our most vulnerable community members in the United States all along. 

Preliminary reports of increased exploitation are surfacing from across the globe and anecdotal stories that were circulating a few weeks ago are now resulting in increased calls for help to hotlines and to service providers across the US.

We know that the populations most vulnerable to exploitation are those that have experienced the trauma that accompanies poverty, discrimination, and stigma. For those already living on the margins, violence and exploitation are a part of daily life. Under the economic strain of one of the most deadly viruses in 100 years, it would be safe to assume that these already marginalized and vulnerable populations are facing dire circumstances and increased exploitation.

But, we don’t need to assume. Preliminary reports of increased exploitation are surfacing from across the globe and anecdotal stories that were circulating a few weeks ago are now resulting in increased calls for help to hotlines and to service providers across the US, including in Colorado. 

Who is at Greater Risk For Trafficking During COVID-19?

To work on the issue of human trafficking means asking yourself and others to pay attention to people who are often perceived as “unworthy” and rarely considered victims. If you care about trafficking, you must also care about people experiencing racism, systemic inequities, and barriers to accessing resources that many take for granted. Human trafficking is a severe form of exploitation for labor (which includes sex as a form of labor) through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. While we are understandably preoccupied with our own well-being and that of our family and friends during this time of crisis, trafficking victims are falling through the cracks. 

Low-Wage Earners

Workers with low-wage jobs in the formal or informal economy are at greater risk for exploitation as their primary concern is survival. Fear of losing a job is a major deterrent to reporting abuse or unsafe working conditions. Many workers are willing to endure exploitation and abuse in order to continue to receive some money in these incredibly unpredictable times. Individuals in low-paid jobs who spend most of their income on basic necessities are also much less likely to have the savings to endure unexpected economic shocks.

Perhaps predictably, many of these low-wage workers are considered “essential” during this crisis. This includes industries like construction, manufacturing, agriculture, child care, sanitation, and retail settings like grocery stores. Because of the nature of their situations, these individuals have little choice but to put themselves at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 for little pay in order to continue to support their families.

The scarcity of jobs means that unscrupulous employers can leverage their power in this crisis in order to cut corners and save money. As human trafficking professionals, we commonly see this type of rationalization…They should be grateful for the work, I don’t have to pay overtime or provide required safety equipment. “Essential” low-wage workers become expendable when 33 million people are desperate for work. We have now witnessed whistleblowers fired for voicing concerns in multi-billion dollar companies, so we can safely assume similar retribution is occurring in low-wage work as well, but without the publicity. 

A grocery store worker in North County, San Diego, California. Many low-wage workers are considered essential during COVID-19. 📷: @makenna_entrikin

Sex Workers

Sex work has not stopped, but demand has slowed during the pandemic. Though some aspects of sex work have closed temporarily (like night clubs), demand has not stopped. For some, that means shifting the type of sex work from in-person to online to meet the new demand (though competition is high). For street-based sex workers, perhaps the most marginalized, there is no other option but to continue their already dangerous work during COVID-19 at great personal risk to their health.

While those working in the legal sex industry are partially protected under expanded unemployment provisions, businesses that employ sex workers do not qualify for loans under the Small Business Administration loan program recently passed by congress. This results in unknown numbers of mostly female and trans sex workers pushing their own boundaries of safety, taking greater risks in order to obtain income, and potentially becoming more vulnerable to sex trafficking.

People Already in Abusive Situations

Additionally, those who were already in exploitative sex trafficking situations are not likely to be released from debt or abusive situations because of this crisis. In fact, there has been an uptick of both child abuse and domestic violence cases across the country. The strained economic situation and dynamics of power and control that lead to sex trafficking are likely increased during the pandemic. As humans in sex trafficking situations are used like commodities, the need to exert control in order to profit during this economic crisis could result in increased violence. It is unlikely that the health and well-being of the victim are top of mind for the trafficker. 

While we are understandably preoccupied with our own well-being and that of our family and friends during this time of crisis, trafficking victims are falling through the cracks. 

Migrant Farm Workers

Before the emergence of COVID-19, migrant farm workers in the US were already at risk of exploitation. In one 2020 report, 100% of migrant farm workers suffered at least one major violation of their human rights.  The lack of regulations, lax enforcement of existing standards and the dependence on employers for jobs, transportation, and access to information make this population ripe for exploitation. Most migrant farmworkers begin their employment already in debt to their employer as they are forced to borrow for travel and recruitment fees that currently average $4500. Migrant workers report not being paid what they were promised, not being allowed to leave employer housing, and/or the seizure of their passports. 

Farm laborers in Florida in April, 2020. Before the emergence of COVID-19, migrant farm workers in the US were already at risk of exploitation.. 📷: Joe Raedle

The pandemic has amplified existing systemic abuse by restricting movement due to border closures and increased stigmatization due to nativist politics. COVID-19 has allowed employers to limit workers basic human rights in the name of safety for workers and stopping the spread of the virus. While no laws have officially changed, employers in Colorado are proposing policies that would result in the complete isolation of workers after a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. This isolation would include disallowing leaving the workplace to shop for basic necessities, accessing laundry facilities, and observing religious services. It would also disallow already scarce housing inspections and access to education like “know-your-rights” information.

Advocates worry that treating farm workers more like property, instead of like humans, could result in a lack of access to healthcare, basic hygiene, and a general confusion about workers rights. While most of the three million migrant farmworkers in the US are working legally, for those who are undocumented, the situation is even more dire. Research has found that many undocumented workers do not report their employers when they experience abuse and exploitation for fear that seeking help will lead to deportation.

Lessons and Hope Beyond This Crisis

When this crisis passes, what will we have learned, and what will we remember?

At the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, bringing awareness to the root causes of human trafficking is a reflection of our core values of social justice, integrity, and interdisciplinary response. In this moment, we are learning new ways to reach those vulnerable populations who need our support more than ever. We are continuing to connect survivors to resources through Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline. We are exploring how to provide more virtual trainings to professionals and community groups (If you are interested in booking a training, let us know). We are also continuing to remotely support future human rights leaders through our Leadership Development Program.

As already limited resources that fund anti-trafficking organizations are diverted to support immediate and visible healthcare needs, the funding that we need to continue our work is becoming more scarce and competitive. You can help sustain anti-trafficking work through a donation or volunteer commitment by visiting combathumantrafficking.org/hope. Together, we can stay at hope.

Author: Kara Napolitano
Kara Napolitano is the Research and Training Manager with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in Denver, Colorado. For the last two years she has led training and education efforts at LCHT, training more than 8,000 individuals in two years in forty counties across rural and urban Colorado.

This May, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking is leading Stay at Hope, a special call to sustain anti-trafficking efforts in Colorado. To get involved visit combathumantrafficking.org/hope or text HOPE to 71777

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