Under the subset definition of “human trafficking”, labor trafficking gets the least amount of attention.
In the United States, men make up 40% of labor trafficking victims. Of that percentage, 66% of victims are foreign nationals, while 20% are American citizens. The foreign national population is made up of immigrants (primarily from Central and South America) who dream of a successful future in the United States and are tricked into being promised a visa (Carroll). False recruiters feed on the desperation and hope of these men to lure them into the country. It is a tactic that enforces the sad reality of men being treated like animals and working in exploitative conditions; a Salvadoran man shared how he was forced to pick vegetables at gunpoint, work without pay for five months, and that he was beaten, raped, and burned with cigarettes (Carroll). In regards to Valentine’s Day, male farmers in places such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana work overtime in cocoa fields to fulfill the Valentine’s Day consumer quota – approximately $750 million in sales. That’s further proof (commercial) love was never cheap to begin with, anyway.
Labor trafficking victims work on farms, in restaurants, nursing homes, private homes, construction sites, and factories. (Jones) While these work places appear “normal”, the treatment of the men inside them is questionable. Farm laborers are forced to absorb deadly chemicals, live without water and shelter, and “eat and sleep in their pesticide-contaminated clothes and chemically abused skins.” (Jones) They are threatened with deportation if they try to escape. Once men realize they are trapped in their abusive workplace, this induces shame on their part since they know – but are not willing to admit – they are being exploited. A U.S. Department of State report states, “‘many migrant workers may see their trafficking as bad luck rather than a serious human rights violation.’ Men also feel bound by social constructs of masculinity: to admit to exploitation is to admit to one’s failure to provide for his family or stand up for himself.” (Clymer)
Fatherhood is an aspiration of masculinity desired and attained by a select few who want to have a family. Its responsibilities entail “being breadwinners, masculine role models, involved parents, and nurturing caregivers” to their loved ones, and ensuring that they practice good time management and decision making skills to satisfy their commitments (Duckworth). Compared to colonial times “when good U.S. fathers made sure that their children could quote scripture and not be a burden to communities, fatherhood has shifted to being breadwinners, masculine role models, involved parents, and nurturing caregivers.” (Duckworth) Therefore, a father’s display of masculinity directly influences his line of children, particularly the males. If they do not fulfill the role expected of them, then they are left feeling insecure and inadequate.
While we regard our fathers with care and occasional annoyance, I don’t think we consider their pressure to provide for their family. Putting the “family first” holds various meanings, but a general meaning agreed upon is “prioritizing families in different ways – from mundane daily routines to major life and career decisions.” (Duckworth) Most importantly, fatherhood is a web of responsibilities to others but foremost to their children (Duckworth). The “family man” embodies the “family first” ideal that requires the man maintaining control over all situations. If the man does not have that, he fails in his role as “guardian” and “protector”, and his self-esteem deteriorates into feelings of frustration, shame, and anger in being viewed as weak and unmanly – which relates back to how men find it difficult to express their feelings. Male trafficking victims and survivors struggle with this loss of power and dealing with the idea that since society is perceived to be a dominant patriarchal society, men are expected to always have power. That aforementioned thought is attributed to feminism observing men in power.
“Men’s feelings are not the feelings of the powerful, but of those who see themselves as powerless. … They are the feelings of men who were raised to believe themselves entitled to feel that power, but do not feel it. No wonder many men are frustrated and angry.” (Kimmel)
Powerlessness is a crippling feeling. While some women are taught to overcome it, men are expected to know how to handle it. In the world of human trafficking where men are under-reported, they continue to thrive as victims because of their conflicted understanding of sexuality and masculinity. We must give male trafficking victims encouragement, power, and the belief that they matter. The invisible must become visible.