Originally published November 29, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated November 29, 2012 at 3:55 p.m.
Reports on human trafficking tend to focus on the sex trade. But a researcher at San Diego State University found that labor trafficking of undocumented immigrants in sectors like construction and janitorial services is rampant in San Diego County.
Estela De Los Rios, Executive Director of the the Center for Social Advocacy-San Diego County.
One in three unauthorized immigrants working in San Diego County is a victim of labor trafficking, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, half have suffered labor abuses or exploitation at the workplace.
Looking for a Hidden Population: Trafficking of Migrant Laborers In San Diego County
The study was led by San Diego State University professor Sheldon X. Zhang. Zhang and his team partnered with the San Diego-based non-profit, Center for Social Advocacy (CSA), to identify and interview more than 800 undocumented migrant laborers in San Diego County.
Zhang and his team found that labor trafficking “appears to be rampant among unauthorized Spanish-speaking migrant workers in San Diego County.”
Undocumented workers in other parts of the country could face similar levels of abuse, they concluded.
Labor trafficking was defined for the purpose of the study as actual or threatened infringement of freedom of movement or physical violation. The most common violations reported were being given inadequate food or sleep, being forbidden to leave the workplace, and being threatened by their employers with deportation.
These and other reported abuses violate U.S. and international trafficking laws.
The researchers also looked at labor abuses. The most common abuses reported were being denied pay or receiving less pay than promised, and being given different work than promised.
Zhang and his team found that far fewer migrants suffered abuses by smugglers while en route to the U.S. than abuses by employers in San Diego County. They also found that those who can speak only “simple sentences” in English are at much greater risk of being victimized.
Of the six most common job sectors for undocumented workers, construction had the highest rate of reported trafficking violations and abusive labor practices, according to the study, followed by cleaning or janitorial services.
Agricultural workers were at less risk for trafficking and abusive labor practices than migrant workers in other sectors, though researchers are not clear why.
The study is one of the first in the country to quantify the labor trafficking of undocumented workers.
“And now with the statistics, we can now shed some light on how serious this problem is,” said Estela de los Rios, executive director of CSA.
Local immigration authorities say they’re not surprised by the findings, but say few actual cases are brought to their attention because undocumented victims don’t come forward.
“They’re very fearful of law enforcement because they’re seen as criminals,” de los Rios said. “And because of that hostile environment, they choose not to report these crimes.”
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Peggy Pico and Patty Lane contributed to this segment