Who is the ("ideal") Victim of Labor Exploitation? Two Qualitative Vignette Studies on Labor Inspectors' Discretion

Rebecca Paraciani, Kim Loyens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper analyzes how labor inspectors deal with ambiguous legal boundaries between those who can and who cannot be identified as a labor exploitation victim. Street-level bureaucracy research has largely overlooked how frontline officers deal with victims. We combine the street-level bureaucracy framework with insights from symbolic interactionism and criminology about ‘ideal/iconic victims’ to explain how inspectors use heuristics based on societal norms about victimhood to deal with legal ambiguity when dealing with potential labor exploitation cases. Using qualitative vignette studies in Belgium and the Netherlands, our results show that the perceived vulnerability and blamelessness of employees have a crucial role in inspectors’ assessment of who is and is not a labor exploitation victim. More specifically, migrant workers are seen as more vulnerable than native workers, particularly if they are female, and perceived complicity of social fraud reduces the chance that workers are seen as exploitation victims. Furthermore, also perceived employer characteristics have a role in case assessment. Our findings thus show that within the context of legal ambiguity, labor inspectors use stereotypical societal victim perceptions as heuristics, which can result in legal uncertainty and the risk that those suffering exploitations do not receive the support they need.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalSociological Quarterly
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • labor exploitation
  • labor inspectors
  • social norms
  • street-level bureaucracy


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