Cover: Current and Future Research on Labor Trafficking in the United States

Current and Future Research on Labor Trafficking in the United States

Published May 9, 2023

by Joe Eyerman, Melissa M. Labriola, Isabelle González


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Research Question

  1. What sort of research program would result in a better understanding of the current state of DHS and other trafficking research, assess challenges with identifying potential victims, and develop methods for collaborating with partners?

Reducing the prevalence of all forms of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and child sexual exploitation, is a national priority that puts the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a prominent role. Given the scale, evolving nature, and complexity of labor trafficking, combating the problem poses a significant challenge. The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) anti–human trafficking program is assessing the current state of and future needs for labor trafficking research in the United States. This effort will serve as a starting point for future social science–based S&T anti–human trafficking research and actions focused on labor trafficking.

As part of this effort, DHS asked the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) to identify a scientifically sound research agenda that would leverage existing U.S. and international efforts to address the growing phenomenon of labor trafficking. HSOAC experts developed a research agenda through an extensive review of the literature and meetings with experts from academia and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and with stakeholders from DHS and other parts of the U.S. government (expert interviews). The research agenda identified the barriers that would need to be addressed and the questions that would need to be answered to promote operationally relevant, focused, applied social and behavioral science research that would inform decision- and policymakers and assist operational partners in mitigating the crimes of labor trafficking and human trafficking more broadly. This report describes the authors' methods, findings, and recommendations.

Key Finding

  • The authors performed a literature review and a series of expert interviews to identify research questions in the literature and to prioritize those questions to align with DHS operational needs. They identified 18 research questions that should be addressed in the next six years, prioritizing eight to address in the next 12 months.


  • Address these questions in fiscal year (FY) 2023: (1) What increases migrants’ vulnerability to being forced into labor? (2) How can the field of anti–labor trafficking be standardized in research and practice? (3) How can data systems be coordinated and organized to promote data-sharing, quantitative analysis, and evaluation? (4) Who are the traffickers, and how do they operate, communicate, and engage victims? (5) How can stakeholders encourage undocumented workers to participate in services, programs, and research? (6) What is the optimal protocol for labor trafficking investigations? (7) How can decisionmakers identify evidence-based clinical screenings, identification, and training tools? What are best practices for identification, intervention, and investigation? and (8) What funding is needed for labor trafficking research, investigations, and training?
  • In FYs 2024–2025, address these questions: (1) How can stakeholders analyze complex trafficking events? (2) What training could increase quality and standardization of data-collection efforts? (3) How do agency pressures shape investigation initiation and completion? and (4) What are ethical challenges of using secondary data for research about victims? How can these be mitigated?
  • In FYs 2026–2030, address these questions: (1) How can agencies investigate and research labor trafficking across multiple jurisdictions? (2) What assessment tools will help frontline workers identify cases? (3) How does work environment affect reporting? (4) How can stakeholders increase workers’ awareness of their rights? (5) What are trafficking patterns, and what technologies can help trace them? and (6) What are industry-specific recruitment methods for labor trafficking? What are the nodes of intervention?

This research was sponsored by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and conducted by the Infrastructure, Immigration, and Security Operations Program within the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.