Human Trafficking: A Big Business Built on Forced Labor

By Neha Misra
Published on February 2, 2013 in the Huffington Post Blog

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Trafficking in persons has become a big business. Globally, it’s a $32 billion industry involving 161 countries — including the United States. Trafficking in persons involves activities where one person obtains or holds another person incompelled service. While many people are aware of sex trafficking, human trafficking that involves forced labor is far more prevalent. Some 78 percent of forced labor is based on state- or privately-imposed exploitation, not forced sexual exploitation.

It’s likely you have encountered at least one of the 21 million people in forced labor. In developed economies such as the United States, Europe and Japan, we are seeing an increase in cases of trafficked immigrant teachers, nurses, construction and service workers — all who hold valid visas. Their presence shines a light on the structural failures within our economic and employment systems that increase immigrant workers’ vulnerability to severe forms of labor exploitation. Multinational corporations, employers, businesses, labor recruiters and others exploit these failures.

In other words, human trafficking is not only a big business. Trafficking in humans is increasingly a legitimate business.

While the media portray traffickers as organized criminal syndicates or underground blackmarketeers who exploit undocumented workers, today’s traffickers can also be licensed labor recruiters — those who solicit workers for jobs in other cities or countries — employers or even government officials. Trafficking for labor exploitation occurs within the legal framework of employment and business and through documented visa programs.

Trafficking for labor exploitation often goes undetected and gets little attention. Immigration officials may categorize immigrant workers who are trafficked as undocumented workers and deport them. Police and labor inspectors may view involuntary servitude or debt bondage in sectors such as agriculture, construction, manual labor and manufacturing as “mere” worker rights abuses, and so not justifying a remedy. Prosecutions for forced labor are far fewer than those for trafficking for sexual exploitation (and even those are low).

When such cases do make it to the justice system, they provide a rare look into the struggles of these exploited workers. In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the case of 400 Thai migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to the United States under the H-2A visa program through false promises of decent work. The Thai workers “took on crushing debt to pay exorbitant recruiting fees,” ranging from $9,500 to $21,000. After they arrived in the United States, according to the indictment, their passports were taken and they were set up in shoddy housing and told that if they complained or fled they would be fired, arrested or deported.

Human trafficking thrives in an environment of worker exploitation and engenders forced labor, debt bondage and other egregious labor abuse. The creation of so-called guest worker programs and the rise of “labor recruiters” have exacerbated the vulnerabilities for workers inherent in labor migration. Many labor recruiters charge exorbitant fees for their services, forcing workers into debt bondage. Temporary labor migration or “guest worker” schemes promoted by governments to fill demand for cheap labor often create a legalized system for employers to exploit workers, deny them their rights and increase their vulnerability to trafficking and forced labor.

If we want to end trafficking, forced labor and other forms of modern slavery, we must address these broader underlying root causes, including failures to protect workers and enforce labor standards. One of our most important weapons in the fight against trafficking is the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), currently pending reauthorization but languishing in Congress. The TVPA provided critical resources and important tools. Its reauthorization is critical to maintaining U.S. leadership on this important issue.

Other steps to address forced labor through human trafficking include:

  • Reforming labor laws to cover people now excluded from legal protection, such as domestic workers, and ensuring such laws are implemented and enforced.
  • Providing safer migration processes for workers.
  • Boosting scrutiny of imports and exports to ensure goods made by trafficked or forced labor are not allowed in the marketplace. U.S. law does not allow evidence collected by unions (and, hence, from the exploited worker themselves) or non-governmental sources to be the basis for restricting the importation of products made by trafficked or slave labor.
  • Increasing pressure on companies to map their supply chains and make such information public.
  • Promoting freedom of association and the right to organize — worker reporting and worker representation over unenforceable codes of conduct and third-party monitoring — as an effective way to monitor supply chains for trafficking and forced labor.
  • Regulating labor recruiters and subcontractors more strictly, ensuring the elimination of fees for jobs and the imposition of strict liability for employers for the actions of their recruiters/subcontractors.

The Solidarity Center has details on these proposals and more.