The Coercion of Trafficked Workers

67 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2010 Last revised: 7 Jun 2012

See all articles by Kathleen Kim

Kathleen Kim

Loyola Law School Los Angeles


Theories of coercion exist across multiple disciplines to explicate the ability of one actor, the coercer, to diminish the free will of another, the coercee, in the absence of overt physical force. A valid claim of coercion places legal blame on the coercer or relinquishes the coercee from legal responsibility for a coerced act or omission. Defining the point at which coercion occurs, however, is the conceptually more difficult task. Recently, coercion has emerged as a significant source of analytic concern in a developing area of the law - contemporary involuntary labor or human trafficking. It is in this setting where coercion is explicitly codified as a fundamental legal element in human-trafficking crimes. However, the laws addressing human trafficking continue to struggle with delineating the dimensions of coercion. Legal scholars, moreover, have not yet engaged in a focused exploration of this issue to bring efficacy and substantive meaning to coercion within the human-trafficking framework. This Article examines the empirical and normative scope of coercion in the laws addressing contemporary involuntary labor. Incorporating perspectives from modern philosophy, this Article critiques older standards of coercion within Thirteenth Amendment doctrine and advances a new theory of coercion sensitive to the intricate power dynamics that characterize many human-trafficking cases. Called “situational coercion,” this new paradigm recognizes that instead of experiencing coercion through direct threats of harm from their traffickers, many trafficked workers comply with abusive working conditions due to circumstances that render them vulnerable to the exploitation, such as a lack of legal immigration status and poverty. By more accurately capturing the sociological realities of human trafficking, which victimize workers in subtle ways, the situational coercion framework advances the Thirteenth Amendment’s aim to ensure free labor and protect a broad category of coerced workers.

Keywords: Coercion, human trafficking, migrant worker exploitation, immigration

Suggested Citation

Kim, Kathleen, The Coercion of Trafficked Workers. 96 Iowa Law Review 409 (2011), Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2010-53, Available at SSRN:

Kathleen Kim (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

919 Albany Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States

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