US immigration policies boost slavery risks

Human Rights Outlook 2017

The Trump administration’s migration policy will put migrants working for US businesses at greater risk of forced labour and trafficking. Here are some key points:

  • A US-Mexico border wall will increase trafficking costs and deepen migrant worker debt, making migrants more vulnerable to exploitation
  • Tougher rhetoric about migrants will make those on seasonal permits more reticent to report labour abuse
  • Businesses will be increasingly scrutinised by NGOs and the media for their response to the Trump administration’s policies


Under the Trump administration, businesses with supply chains that rely on low-skilled, temporary migrant labour will face increasing risks of modern slavery in their workforce. The construction of a US-Mexico border wall or stricter enforcement of deportation rules will not reduce the appeal of migrating for thousands of Latin Americans: poverty and gang violence will still push economic migrants north; and the demand for cheap, low-skilled labour will still pull migrants toward the US.

Criminal networks will adapt and use other, more costly, trafficking routes, by air and by sea. As trafficking fees increase, undocumented migrants will become more deeply mired in debt – and, hence, more vulnerable to exploitation. By enforcing stricter deportation rules for the country’s 8 million undocumented migrant workers, the government will push them further underground.

The administration’s pledge to get tough with migrants may also impact H-2B guest workers, on seasonal work visas. These migrants will hesitate to report abuse, for fear of not being re-hired the following year.

Challenges and opportunities

A sharp decline in the security of America’s underclass of migrant workers may shift the US from medium to high risk in our Modern Slavery Index during the Trump administration. Suppliers in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and transport are most exposed. Not only are these sectors in which migrants do crucial low-skilled, low-paid work; they are also most likely to involve informal and casual labour, hidden subcontracting and unethical recruitment.

Suppliers in sectors that are most likely to employ low-skilled, irregular migrant workers may need to revise how they classify high-risk suppliers when it comes to auditing supply chains. This is especially true of retail and manufacturing companies, the sectors that are covered by the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. This act, which was the first mandatory disclosure regulation on human rights, requires companies to report on their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains.

Explaining the data

Any increase in the vulnerability of the 8 million undocumented migrants in the US labour force could worsen the risk of modern slavery across key states. The map shows that California, Texas and Florida have the most undocumented immigrants. They form a significant proportion of each state’s labour force: 9% in California; 8.5% in Texas; and 6.2% in Florida.

As the pie charts show, over half of the undocumented migrant workers in Florida and California work in agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, construction and transport. These sectors will therefore be hard hit by measures that put migrant workers at risk of abuse. As our commodities risk data reveals, the risk of migrant labourers being exploited is already assessed as extreme or high risk on farms producing apples, citrus fruits, grapes and berries in Florida and California.

Summing it up

The sharp divisions in US society between pro- and anti-Trump supporters are creating an unusual risk and opportunity for business. Both sides are calling on business to make public its position in relation to key policies, including on migration; however, such action results in plaudits from the administration’s supporters and calls for boycotts from its critics.

Following the administration’s ban on migrants entering the US from seven Muslim majority countries, companies from sectors such as ICT, car manufacturing, finance, and food and beverage publicly opposed the measure. It is likely that pressure on business to take a public position, particularly from civil society and activist groups, will increase. And the media will be watching closely – not only how businesses respond to the administration’s migration policy, but also how they treat migrants who work for them.

Top 10 human rights issues for business in 2017

  • Mandatory reporting: Disclosure and due diligence laws
  • Supply chain blind spots: Hidden workers at risk of modern slavery
  • Migration and modern slavery: Increasing risk for migrant workers in US
  • Land rights: Rising scrutiny of land grabs’ money trail
  • Social audits: Strengthening trust in auditing
  • Corrupt recruitment: Strategic litigation with anti-bribery laws
  • Privacy: The surveillance–national security dilemma
  • Worker voice: Partnering with workers to prevent violations
  • New technology: Transforming human rights management
  • SDGs and UNGPs: Changing the lives of 81% of all workers