Labor trafficking is a devastating crime that denies workers their basic human and labor rights. It involves forcing someone into involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery through force, fraud, or coercion. With the threat of deportation hanging over undocumented workers, employers can exploit them by paying them less than they agreed to, ignoring unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, and even inflicting physical abuse.
Roughly half of the estimated 27.6 million victims of labor trafficking worldwide are exploited in countries with developed economies, like the U.S. Florida, home to about 400,000 undocumented workers, ranks second for the number of labor trafficking cases. And it’s among the top four states for T-visa applications, which if granted, make human trafficking victims eligible for legal permanent residence.
Florida’s record is unsurprising. Agriculture, hospitality, tourism, and domestic work--industries known to have a high prevalence of labor trafficking—dominate the state’s economy. And the situation could get worse. Florida’s new E-Verify law, which went into effect July 1, 2023, is intended to reduce or eliminate employment of unauthorized workers and consequently reduce unemployment for individuals eligible to work in the United States. But it could have unintended side effects that increase labor trafficking.
The E-Verify System
E-Verify is a web-based system designed to prevent hiring of undocumented workers by giving employers the ability to electronically compare an employee’s I-9 information to data in Social Security Administration (SSA) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases. It began as a pilot program in 1996, and 12 years later, an executive order required all federal contractors to use E-Verify. Since 2007, 20 states have passed laws mandating E-Verify for state agencies or state contractors. Now Florida has joined a handful of states that mandate E-Verify for private employers.
Florida’s law requires private employers with at least 25 employees to use the system. It’s a felony for undocumented workers to falsify information to obtain employment, and a conviction can lead to a fine of up to $5,000 or five years in prison. Employers who knowingly hire or recruit undocumented workers are subject to one-year probation with the Department of Economic Opportunity and repayment of economic development incentives.
Some features of the law, however, could put Floridians at greater risk for labor trafficking or exploitation.
- Forcing all employers to use E-Verify could result in many Floridians losing their jobs, increasing poverty and vulnerability to exploitation.
Poverty is a well-documented risk factor for labor exploitation. For individuals who were already in low-income households, a sudden income shock, like losing a job, can drastically increase their risk for labor trafficking. That could happen to undocumented workers prevented from getting employment.
Making matters worse, while E-Verify is designed to make it easier for employers to comply with laws to prevent illegal employment, it can harm legal workers. Data from the SSA and DHS may not be up to date, leading to errors in the verification process. For example, name changes due to marriage or divorce may not be reported to SSA. So while SSA data on names may be accurate initially, accuracy decreases over time. In addition, noncitizens may change their immigration status or authorized period of stay multiple times while they are in the U.S. That creates a challenge for DHS to maintain up-to-date employment authorization for some groups of noncitizens.
- Workers forced out of the formal job market may turn to informal or underground employment
Florida workers, both undocumented and legal, who lose their jobs due to the E-Verify requirement are at increased risk of moving into the informal or underground economy, where they are no longer under the protection of labor laws and administrative rules. This was the case in Arizona, which in 2008 became the first state to mandate that all employers use the program. A study by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) found that after the law took effect, non-citizen Hispanic men with at most a high school education experienced a statistically significant relative decline in the probability of wage and salary employment. When workers lose the protections afforded by formal employment arrangements, they are at greater risk for exploitation. Workers are left with little recourse if an employer cuts wages, doesn’t fix hazardous working conditions, or abuses workers.
- Illicit recruiters and unethical employers can use fear of deportation, unemployment, and poverty to exploit workers
Evidence from states like Arizona shows that compliance with the law is low. The IZA study found that only about half of new hires were cleared through E-Verify in the year following implementation of the law in Arizona. One reason for low rates of compliance is that enforcing E-Verify laws is not straightforward. Local and state police are typically reluctant to enforce federal immigration laws, and law enforcement traditionally do not get involved in enforcing employment laws. Employers who know they could get away with subverting the E-Verify system could still use the law as a way to intimidate workers, including through threats of deportation or unemployment. Evidence from other states also shows an increase in reports of employers coaching unauthorized workers on how to get through the E-Verify process, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Another concern is that this law will increase illicit recruitment, with individuals charging fees to vulnerable workers to connect them to employment, according to an International Labour Organization report. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes in a report that illicit recruitment is a common pathway to labor exploitation, and workers are most vulnerable when there are limited job opportunities available. For example, a Florida couple running a staffing agency for country clubs was recently convicted of labor trafficking after it was discovered that they were housing workers in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, restricting their access to food and medical care, and preventing them from traveling except to and from work.
Although the intent of E-Verify is to prevent illegal employment by making it easier for employers to comply with labor laws, it can increase the risk for labor trafficking by removing legal protections for workers who feel compelled to turn to the underground economy and may end up exploited by illicit recruiters.
Employers, workers, and community service providers can take steps to prevent labor trafficking and exploitation. Someone denied employment because of E-Verify can follow the steps to correct their information on the E-Verify website. Trafficking victim service providers, including immigration attorneys, can help workers navigate this process, which may require an extra step for groups like international students, lawful permanent residents, and immigrants with work visas.
Public awareness campaigns that educate the public about how to identify potential recruitment fraud and labor exploitation can also help to reduce vulnerability to exploitation.
Community social service providers may experience an increase in individuals seeking assistance, particularly programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants, and Children; and others designed to meet basic needs for individuals experiencing poverty. These providers can prepare to support their clients by developing and strengthening connections so that they can refer their clients to the appropriate place to meet their needs. Anyone who suspects possible labor trafficking can call or text the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is staffed with trained advocates.
Ultimately, collecting evidence about the impact of E-Verify laws is critical. Will it have these side effects in increasing labor trafficking, and if so, to what extent? The answers to these questions are important steps in developing an evidence-based policy to address horrific human rights abuses—and to make sure these abuses don’t unwittingly get worse.