5 Things You Didn't Know About Human Trafficking

With 21 million people around the world in forced labor, what can we do?

Human Trafficking
Reuters/Corbis
Migrants from Guatemala stream into the United States by way of human trafficking networks through Mexico.
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Human trafficking is a travesty that many consider a problem of the past, or at least one limited to outside the United States. Unfortunately, in today's globalized society, the problems of human trafficking are embedded in aspects of Americans' daily lives in ways that many may not be aware of – taking on new forms and presenting new challenges for human-rights defenders worldwide.

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President Obama has called the fight against human trafficking one of the great human-rights causes of our time. Though statistics vary widely, human trafficking is estimated to impact between 600,000 and 800,000 people worldwide; between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S., but freedom remains elusive for many. Here's why:

Human trafficking is shockingly common around the world.
According to an International Labour Organization report from 2012, a staggering three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are in forced labor. That's nearly 21 million people, including 1.5 million in North America – where the U.S. defines human trafficking as falling into two categories, sex trafficking and labor trafficking, under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act passed in 2000.

Poor labor standards in the restaurant industry and for domestic workers create conditions ripe for trafficking.
Many victims of human trafficking in the U.S. end up performing forced labor in the restaurant industry or as domestic workers. UC Irvine law professor Jennifer M. Chacon places the blame for the failure to stop this problem on insufficient labor protections for all workers – but particularly undocumented migrants. Organizers in the restaurant industry and on behalf of domestic workers agree.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) cites two major policy issues at the heart of this problem: first, the need to abolish the tip-based minimum wage; second, the need for universal paid sick days. The group reached these conclusions after a 2011 survey that found 87.7 percent of workers nationwide do not have paid sick days and almost half of workers have experienced overtime violations. "The restaurant industry has the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States," says ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman, who argues that this problem is compounded for immigrant workers and trafficked workers with no rights on the job; in many cases, sexual harassment can lead to sexual assault. The organization created the National Diners Guide app as one way for consumers to educate themselves about working conditions at restaurants in major cities in the United States. 

President Barack Obama speaking in New York.
President Barack Obama speaks about modern day slavery during the Clinton Global Initiative (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Similar problems of forced labor arise for domestic workers. Author and former employment attorney Sheila Bapat reports that the majority of the 2 million domestic workers in America are women of color. "There are migrant workers who arrive from other countries to work with employers under ostensibly reasonable conditions (steady pay, a place to live, reasonable hours) but ultimately end up working in slave-like conditions," Bapat says. She argues that the recent Supreme Court ruling that domestic workers don't have the same rights to form unions as other kinds of workers will make it even more difficult to ensure a safe workplace for many domestic workers, many of whom don’t know even know their rights.

America's immigration policy exacerbates the human trafficking problem.
The current U. S. guestworker program has led to a host of problems for immigrants. After horrible human-rights violations were exposed in fine dining restaurants in New Orleans, workers created the National Guestworkers Alliance as a means to organize, finding their experience to be similar to workers across the country. Agriculture laborers also face severe health and safety concerns and in many cases feel unsafe turning to any authorities for help. 

Georgetown professor Denise Brennan writes about forced labor in the United States in her book Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States. "Contrary to claims that 'modern-day slavery' is all around us, the politically thorny reality is that exploited migrant labor is all around us. Most workers are not in a situation of extreme abuse – they are not trafficked. But they work in lousy conditions nonetheless – in a kind of labor purgatory. There is no immigration relief or protections for being 'almost trafficked,'" Brennan tells RS. "Our current immigration regime – deportation regime – makes it impossible to fight trafficking." 

A migrant worker cultivates lettuce in Southern California.
A migrant worker cultivates lettuce in Southern California. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The debate over sex work can be a distraction.
By far the largest number of human trafficking cases reported are for sex trafficking – but how to support these victims (and, indeed, how to decide who is labeled as a victim) is a major subject of debate in the U.S. right now.

Tara Burns, author of the Whore Diaries series, wrote about her experience supporting herself with "survival sex" while homeless and struggling with the foster care system. Burns says that anti-trafficking laws negatively impacted her as well as other homeless youth – noting that the current anti-trafficking regime in many American cities means those involved in sex work in any capacity are often viewed as victims of trafficking, which is not necessarily the case, rather than taking into account the economic realities behind the choices of some of these individuals.

Sex worker advocates argue sex workers must be included in developing anti-trafficking initiatives. In a promising move, restrictions on funding for those organizations that work with active sex workers were lifted by the Obama administration in 2010. Organizations like the Sex Workers Project believe the move away from criminalization of sex work and instead towards harm reduction is paramount to more successfully addressing sex trafficking. This group is one of the first in the nation to assist survivors of human trafficking. The organization "provides client-centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance or coercion," and is the only U.S. organization working with both active sex workers and trafficking victims.

We need better programs and support for survivors of human trafficking.
Although the United States can issue up to 5,000 visas a year for victims of human trafficking, only a very small fraction of them have been granted in recent years. "Trafficking visas are really hard to get even if you have a horrible situation," says Saru Jarayaman. "That means there are neither resources for those who have been trafficked, nor real consequences for traffickers."

Human Rights Watch highlights the often unspoken reality of what happens to survivors of human trafficking. As Nisha Varia, a senior researcher in HRW's Women’s Rights Division, noted in a recent HRW post, "Sadly, victims of forced labor are too often treated like criminals instead of people who are entitled to assistance." Varia also believes that there is a need for improved efforts to identify victims of forced labor to avoid double victimization during immigration and criminal proceedings.