Restaurants/Food Service

Victims of human trafficking in the restaurant and food service industry are forced to work as waiters, bussers, kitchen staff, or even cooks/chefs with little or no pay. They may experience erratic working hours or overwork, with little time off to seek help. 

Employees in restaurant and food service industries may be U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents, undocumented immigrants, or holders of a temporary work visa.

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When does it become trafficking?

A job in a restaurant or food service venue can become human trafficking when the employer or labor recruiter uses force, fraud, or coercion to intimidate the worker and to make the worker believe that he or she has no other choice but to continue working. Common elements of force, fraud, or coercion in restaurants include:

Force: Restrictions on the worker’s ability to leave the restaurant or housing; intentionally exhausting work hours; physical or sexual abuse; constant surveillance, lack of medical treatment for work related injury or illness.

Fraud: Misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, wages, and immigration benefits of the job; altered or fake contracts; non-payment, underpayment or confiscation of wages; visa fraud.

Coercion: Threats of deportation or other harm to the victim or the victim’s family; confiscation of passports and visas; debt manipulation.

Victim Vulnerabilities

Human trafficking spans all victim demographics and the vulnerabilities traffickers exploit are unique and specific to each victim (e.g. a developmental disorder, past child abuse, cultural beliefs). However, the NHTRC sees recurring victim vulnerabilities within the restaurant industry. Some examples of these include (and are not limited by):

Immigration Status: Many workers in the restaurant industry were born outside the United States. Some immigrant workers obtain restaurant jobs through formal or informal recruiting networks, and may have an inflated recruitment debt, which frequently increases with costs paid to employer. Foreign national victims may be frequently transferred from restaurant to restaurant or become reliant on their employer for housing. Additionally, traffickers often use the threat of deportation as well as document confiscation to maintain control of foreign national victims. They prey on immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US to further manipulate or exploit them.

Economically Disadvantaged: According to a study by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, food service employees often face higher levels of persistent poverty and food insecurity due to extremely low wages and prevalence of part-time or entry level positions. Traffickers often target victims who are initially economically vulnerable, promising opportunities for advancement and consistent hours. This economic instability reduces a victim’s safety net – if they decide to report or leave their trafficking situation, they might not be able to afford rent or basic necessities without an income or job. 

Industry Vulnerabilities

Traffickers conduct their trafficking operations in a wide range of industries, utilizing both legitimate and illegitimate venues and means of operation. Various industries are faced with challenges or weakness that can be used by traffickers as enabling factors for human trafficking. Examples of recurring vulnerabilities within the restaurant and food industry include (and are not limited to):

Low industry safety standards: Restaurant workers are vulnerable to exploitation due to the work standards in certain parts of the restaurant industry and lack of enforcement of labor and safety regulations. Over half of surveyed food chain workers reported a lack of health and safety training from employers, as well as facing work related injuries or health conditions.

Poor Wages and Conditions: Many victims of trafficking face wage theft, lack of overtime pay, or benefits. In a study of the restaurant industry, kitchen staff, dishwashers, and cooks were found to work more than 70 hours per week, and typically do not receive paid vacation or sick leave. Traffickers exploit the lack of worker protections by requiring more work from workers for less pay, never permitting them a day off, and not permitting workers to procure jobs elsewhere.

Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics


signals were received by the Hotline in 2021. Includes calls, texts, and online chats and tips.

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