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Forced Labor

Federal Crime of Forced Labor - 18 U.S. Code § 1589

The United States has specific laws protecting workers from being forced to work against their will, ensuring workers are treated fairly and their fundamental basic human rights are not violated.

Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1589, makes it a federal crime to knowingly provide or obtain the labor or services of a person using force, threats of force, physical restraint, or fraud, otherwise known simply as "forced labor."

Federal Crime of Forced Labor - 18 U.S. Code § 1589

If you are accused of forcing someone to work for you, or if you are accused of helping someone else force someone to work for them (e.g., trafficking labor), you could be charged with the crime of forced labor under U.S.C. 1589.

This statute falls under peonage, slavery, and trafficking crimes, and anyone accused of involvement with this type of illegal conduct will need experienced legal representation.  The relevant laws that make this conduct a federal crime are defined under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 77, which contains numerous statutes.

Some statutes define certain types of criminal conduct and review what a federal prosecutor has to prove to obtain a conviction for those illegal behaviors. Some regulations deal with other related issues, such as when a convicted defendant has to pay restitution and if there are civil remedies.

Depending on the details of your forced labor case, you could face other related charges, such as kidnapping or carrying away someone with the intent that they will be held as a slave or sold into involuntary servitude.

Perhaps you could be charged with obstructing, or trying to obstruct, the enforcement of any of the laws designed to prevent forced labor, peonage, or trafficking in persons.

If you are convicted of this crime, you could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.  Our federal criminal defense attorneys will review this law below.

What Is Forced Labor?

Forced labor is a form of slavery and human trafficking in which victims are coerced into performing labor or services against their will. This can include physical labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, or other types of work.

Victims of forced labor may be held against their will by force, deception, the threat of violence, or non-violent forms of harm. They may also be lured into situations where they cannot leave by false promises of better working or living conditions. 

While anyone can be a victim of forced labor, certain groups are more vulnerable to becoming victims. These include:

  • Undocumented immigrants;
  • People with a language barrier;
  • Those in extreme poverty or buried in debt;
  • Those who are separated from a support system (e.g., friends and family);
  • People with mental or physical disabilities;
  • Women and children.

What Are the Indicators of Forced Labor?

The most obvious example of a forced labor situation is when the workers are threatened with physical harm to themselves or their loved ones if they do not work.

This may also include restricted movements or unlawful restraint. However, many instances of forced labor are much subtler than overt threatening. Some of the less obvious indicators of forced labor include:

  • Debt bondage. For example, employers might charge workers exorbitant hiring fees, and they can't pay the debt with their wages. Or they may require workers to buy their supplies at a company-sanctioned store or commissary for "credits" or at super-inflated prices, making it impossible for them to remain financially solvent. They aren't allowed to "quit" until the debt is paid, but the ever-growing debt can never be paid at their current wages. ("Dustbowl" migrants were commonly victims of these practices at some California farms in the 1930s).
  • Wage withholding. Employers withhold or refuse to pay wages under some pretense or until certain conditions are met—but the worker will never be able to meet the conditions and therefore feels they must work incessantly.
  • Deception/keeping workers in ignorance. For example, depriving workers of mandatory time off or making them think they must work without breaks. This commonly happens when workers do not speak the language and do not know their rights.
  • Isolation and poor living conditions. Workers are forced to live in squalor or are not allowed to leave.

What Are the Related Crimes?

Several other federal crimes are closely related to forced labor, and in many cases, defendants may face multiple charges for these crimes. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Peonage (18 U.S.C. 1581): Holding a worker in debt servitude (e.g., indentured servant);
  • Involuntary servitude (18 USC 1584): Holding someone in compulsory service against their will (i.e., slavery);
  • Human Trafficking (18 USC 1590): Recruiting, harboring, transporting, or brokering people into situations of forced labor, involuntary servitude, slavery, or peonage;
  • Enticement into slavery (18 USC 1583);
  • Seizure, detention, transportation, or sale of slaves (18 USC 1585);
  • Service on vessels in the slave trade (18 USC 1586);
  • Transportation of slaves from the United States (18 USC 1588);
  • Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, coercion (18 USC 1591);
  • Unlawful conduct regarding documents in furtherance of trafficking, peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, forced labor (18 USC 1592);
  • Benefitting financially from peonage and trafficking (18 USC 1593A);
  • Unlawful conduct regarding immigration documents (18 USC 1597).

What Are the Penalties and Defenses for Forced Labor?

The penalties for forced labor are severe. If you are convicted of forced labor under U.S.C. 1589, you could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. However, certain aggravated circumstances may cause the maximum sentence to be significantly increased.

Defenses for Federal Forced Labor Charges

You could be sentenced to life in prison if any aggravated circumstances exist, such as if the forced labor included kidnapping or attempted kidnapping and the forced labor violation included sexual abuse. It also includes if the forced labor included attempted murder and if the violation resulted in someone's death.

If you or a family member is under investigation or indicted for forced labor under United States Code, Title 18, Section 1589, contact our experienced federal defense lawyers to review the case and discuss legal options.   

Negotiating with the federal prosecutor for a favorable resolution may be possible.  Perhaps we can reach a plea agreement if guilt is not in doubt but are prepared to take the case to a trial if necessary.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County, California. We provide legal representation for federal issues throughout the United States. You can reach us for a case review by phone or fill out the contact form.

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