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Status Coercion in the Context of Human Trafficking and Forced Labor


Kathleen C. Kim is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion at Loyola Law School.

This post concludes a symposium on Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment. Read the rest of the symposium here.


In Coerced, Erin Hatton reveals critical insights about work as the point of convergence for multiple coercive power dynamics—sociological, cultural, psychological, legal, political, and economic. As Hatton describes it, “status coercion” operates individually and structurally to force workers’ acquiescence to institutions and actors who wield punitive power over them. Status coercion also reifies tropes of immorality and privilege that diminish worker value through surveillance, regulation, dehumanization, and othering.

The institutionalization of “status coercion” entrenches workers as subservient and employers as dominant, constitutive norms that sustain these coercive labor relations. “Status coercion” is thus a social construct that relegates workers to a position shaped by the coercive power exerted over their bodies and psyches. It comes as no surprise, then, that considerations of race, gender, and class feature centrally in this concept.

Hatton’s “status coercion” framework usefully applies to other categories of workers—including, as I explore here, human trafficked workers. Anti-trafficking laws and policies in the United States—in particular, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)—define certain types of coerced work as unlawful forced labor. Paradoxically, the TVPA’s operation also enables status coercion by casting trafficked workers as either “victims” or “criminals” once they are removed from involuntary servitude. The prevailing anti-trafficking legal regime subjects these workers, especially immigrant workers of color, to coercive conditions that persist in the criminal and immigration enforcement systems. Forced prison labor, considered simply “forced labor” and therefore a violation of the TVPA, raises additional incoherencies with anti-trafficking laws and their implementation.

The trafficked worker is legally defined in the U.S. as one who by force, fraud, or coercion provides labor and/or services for the benefit of another. Enacted pursuant to Section Two of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) prohibits violent and non-violent forms of coercion. An employer’s threats, intimidation, or schemes can establish the grounds for a forced labor crime, a civil cause of action, and the trafficked worker’s eligibility for certain government benefits.

The TVPA is progressive in theory but has limited effectiveness in practice. The shortcomings of the TVPA and related anti-trafficking laws and policies result, in part, from their persistent reliance on carceral approaches to eliminate harm in marginalized communities. The very laws meant to protect trafficked workers also vest authority in law enforcement to constrain trafficked workers, especially those whose status as BIPOC undocumented workers engaged in coerced work render them “victims,” “criminals,” or both.

Examining human trafficking through the lens of “status coercion” reveals how a trafficked worker’s social position undergirds their subjugation. Undocumented and/or marginalized by race, gender, and class, trafficked workers are often targets of exclusionary legal regimes that structurally coerce them into exploitative work arrangements. For example, an immigrant worker’s undocumented status may relegate them to a workplace where their employer overlooks their lack of work authorization in exchange for the worker’s acceptance of substandard working conditions.  Punitive immigration laws like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act position employers as de facto immigration officers, allowing them to wield threats of deportation that coerce workers into involuntary labor.

When a trafficked worker is liberated from a coercive arrangement, their status becomes that of “trafficking victim.” Access to public benefits and other services depends on this victim status (see, e.g., 8 CFR § 214.11 and 45 CFR § 1626.4). In addition, law enforcement systems exert coercive control over formerly trafficked workers because of their status; trafficking victims become key witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of the trafficking crime, and their “materiality” to a successful prosecution permits law enforcement to coerce their testimony through legal and punitive tactics.

But legal systems also often designate trafficked workers as “criminals” themselves. Law enforcement may criminalize trafficking victims who are undocumented and/or whose work includes criminalized acts such as drug manufacturing, drug dealing, or provision of sexual services. Because coercion is difficult to discern, law enforcement tends to view such victims as criminal offenders first. Furthermore, many trafficking victims commit subsistence-related crimes, not because a trafficker directly coerced them into doing so, but because of their socioeconomic precarity. The trafficking victim’s status as “victim” rarely immunizes them from punishment. If the trafficked person is punished by the criminal or immigration enforcement systems, they may be re-trafficked by the prison industrial complex, which forces those who are incarcerated to work under highly exploitative conditions.

In short, even after trafficked workers are liberated from conditions of involuntary labor, legal systems continue to extract their value as trafficking “victims” and, often, as “criminals.”

Over time, a host of racialized and gendered criminal and immigration laws have exacerbated trafficked workers’ “status coercion” by making certain marginalized groups both vulnerable to trafficking and more likely to be cast as “criminals.” After the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, for example, state-enacted Black Codes ensured the continued subordination of freed slaves through an expanding penal system that criminalized ordinary behavior based on racial identity and forced “violators” of these laws into unpaid work. Anti-immigration laws such as the 1875 Page Act and the 1929 Undesirable Aliens Act characterized immigrants from East Asia and Mexico as immoral, innately criminal, and unable to assimilate. These exclusionary laws provided lawmakers with a mechanism to preserve a white majority population while meeting American demand for low- to no-cost labor with disposable workers of color.

This historical backdrop sheds light on the systemic entrenchment of power over the lives and labor of people of color. The interaction between anti-trafficking laws and policies, on one hand, and criminal and immigration laws, on the other, continues to disenfranchise workers marginalized by race, gender, and immigration status.  

In sum, Hatton’s “status coercion” concept highlights labor relations characterized by extreme imbalances in power and the use of punishment to perpetuate this imbalance. Human trafficking victims endure coercion made more severe by the punitive consequences that follow from structures of law and society that subordinate them. Understanding how status coercion operates to intensify the subjugation of trafficked workers is essential for anti-subordination movements seeking to dismantle interlocking systems of inequality that oppress individuals through forced labor. One such movement seeks to eliminate the “except for punishment for crime” clause in the Thirteenth Amendment and analogous exception clauses in state constitutional prohibitions on slavery and involuntary servitude. Such policy moves are necessary to fully realize the Thirteenth Amendment’s promise of freedom from coercion.