Why We Must Begin Talking About Labor Trafficking

October 27, 2014 Brooke Hathaway Opinion 
Forced Labor

On a recent visit to New York City, I met with Safe Horizon whose staff told me that 60% of their human trafficking cases dealt with labor trafficking. Safe Horizon serves clients in the United States, meaning that those 60% of cases occurred here in the U.S.

Labor trafficking is a major issue in the United States as well as overseas. The Global Slavery Index, the International Labour Organization and other researchers find that bonded labor is the largest form of enslavement practiced worldwide. Of the 21 million, the 27 million or the 30 million enslaved today (depending on whose research you use), most victims aren't facing exploitation in the commercial sex industry. No, instead these men, women, boys and girls are forced into physical labor in a variety of industries - food service, domestic servitude, nannying, fishing, mineral extraction, brick quarries -- and it looks eerily similar to the labor practices that we American recognize from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Sex Sells

Real-life stories of survivors of pimp-controlled prostitution, of children sold into brothels, of girls forced to marry old men dominate our headlines. These stories sell news and capture readers' and viewers' attention - which is good in moving the awareness needle.

Interest in sex trafficking organizations in India, in Thailand and in the U.S. is also good. It means additional resources - time, people and money - into those organizations.

But it has consequences, too. It means that modern day slavery or human trafficking is becoming synonymous with sex trafficking. It means that those concerned with labor trafficking face greater deficits in funding, in interest and in support from the general public.

Labor trafficking - when human beings are sold into a slave-like situation where they're forced to work in brick kilns, on fishing boats, in hotels and restaurants, in agricultural fields - is a major piece of the modern slavery problem. If we continue to neglect it, we're neglecting the millions and millions that wake every morning as slaves in a forced labor or bonded labor situation.

A False Dichotomy

The fight against human trafficking is not a choice of either sex trafficking or labor trafficking. The fight is against trafficking. The issue should not be abhorrent to us because someone, especially a child, is sexually exploited. It should be abhorrent to us because a human being is exploited period.

When we create this dichotomy between the two, organizations lose -- but more importantly human beings lose. They lose while we compete for resources and for airtime.

We're reaching a ground swell in the human trafficking field. Many Americans hear the term "human trafficking" and are beginning to understand that people - human beings - are forced into slave-like practices. Unfortunately, this knowledge is largely limited to understanding that sex trafficking, particularly of children, exists and something must be done.

©Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

Let's Talk About Labor

It's wonderful that the world is awakening to the realization that slavery and trafficking in humans exist in our world today, but we have to demand more. We need demand that our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers realize that it's not just children and it's not just sex. It's human beings around the world that do not have a choice in waking up in the morning to work relentlessly for another's economic gain.

16.5 million of the ILO’s estimated 21 million victims worldwide are not victims of sexual exploitation. They are victims of bonded labor, trafficking, child labor and domestic servitude for pure physical labor.

The Case for Business

Companies face many challenges in the global economy, including labor force sourcing in their supply chains. Business is critical to fighting this forced labor and labor trafficking. As John Pepper wrote last week, business and business leaders must take a major role in “eradicating this scourge.” And he pointed out that it’s not for the first time. “It is important to remember that business was complicit in the institution of chattel slavery through the sale, trading and production of cotton goods over more than two centuries.”

If we’re truly going to tackle modern day slavery we’ve got to not only rescue and support the 4.5 million victims of sexual exploitation, we’ve got to address the 16.5 million forced laborers producing our goods. The goods that we consume.

Anytime workers cannot terminate their employment contract, face threats of violence or intimidation, face debt bondage or illegal wage deductions and deception in their wage payments, see sanctions or disciplinary measures that result in an obligation to work, have their freedom of movement restricted, find their identity documents retained against their will, or experience threats of dismissal and denunciation as irregular migrant workers – it’s forced labor.

Focusing on Labor

Are you interested in learning more about the forms of labor trafficking and slavery? We have lots of information that can tell you about bonded labor, domestic servitude, child labor and forced labor. Or head to our Directory of Antislavery Organizations and search for your zip code to find organizations that are in your area, and then call them up and ask if they serve victims of forced labor. If you’re interested in giving to or volunteering with a national or international organization, here’s a list of those working with victims of forced labor.

Lastly, understand that you and I are apart of the problem with forced labor. Unlike sex trafficking, which we can more easily ignore if we’re not directly purchasing sex, forced labor plagues many of the things we buy at the store. Learn how you can be a smarter consumer and begin impacting the type of goods – and type of labor – you want suppliers to put in your store.

We all have a role in ending slavery worldwide, will you begin stepping into yours?


Topics: Forced Labor

About the Author



Brooke Hathaway

Brooke is the Executive Director of End Slavery Now, a project of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter at @brooke_hath