Human trafficking is commonly thought of as part of the sex trade in which desperate young women and children are lured into working in brothels. But the industry, sometimes called modern-day slavery, entangles many more types of labor and continues to grow worldwide even as laws try to squelch it.
Human trafficking is the second most profitable underground industry – after drugs – in the world. Around the globe, its yearly earnings are $35 billion to $37 billion and it’s estimated that at least 1 million people are trafficked each year.
“When you talk about human trafficking, right away people assume it’s about sex. But the experience we’re having in other communities of color is that it’s not only about sex but about labor,” said Velma Veloria, who leads the anti-human trafficking task force at the University of Washington’s Women’s Center along with the center’s executive director, Sutapa Basu.
The center will host a public conference Jan. 11-12 to take a fresh look at human trafficking and its root causes. The other organizers hope the event will lead to some solutions, such as legislation aimed at eliminating human trafficking. They point to poverty and international trade policies as starting points to eradicating the trade.
“In our state, we continue to lead in progress and awareness,” Veloria said. “The issue now is prevention, which we can begin to address if we look at some of the root causes.”
The conference – co-sponsored by the UW School of Law and Seattle University School of Law – comes a decade after the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1175, making the state the first to criminalize human trafficking. Since then 47 other states have instituted similar legislation.
Veloria is a former state representative and author of HB 1175, which was drafted in 2001 during the last anti-trafficking conference convened by the UW Women’s Center. At that time, human trafficking concerns focused on the mail-order bride business in the wake of reports in the 1990s of brides living in the Seattle area being exploited and murdered.
These days, human trafficking touches more trades and is no longer “just about women being prostituted,” Veloria said. Most trafficked laborers become domestic servants. Construction, agriculture and hospitality businesses like nail salons and restaurants are other magnets for human trafficking.
Victims, usually women and children, typically don’t know what they’re getting into. They may enter the trade willingly or are sold into it by their families. Female victims tend to be desperate for employment and come from an economically troubled country where women hold lower social status.
Rarely are they aware of the nature of the work. For instance, an individual might bring a niece to help take care of an aunt, but then the niece becomes an unpaid domestic servant.
Or traffickers, calling themselves employment brokers, tell the victim that they have legitimate work for her abroad as a waitress, dancer or secretary. But the worker ends up as domestic servant, in a sweatshop or in the sex trade. She’s then indebted to the traffickers to pay back their fees for smuggling her into the country. The fees are often in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s not a choice,” Basu said. “It’s forced migration when lack of economic opportunities leave individuals faced with starving and are forced to leave home to survive. No one wants to leave their home and family.”
Traffickers take away workers’ passports and identification, leaving victims afraid to go to the authorities and vulnerable in a country where they rarely can speak the native language.
“The only person the victim knows is the trafficker and they know they’re here illegally – they fear deportation and feel threatened, they fear their family at home will be killed if they leave,” Basu said.
The problem is particularly difficult in Washington, a state in which one in five jobs is a trade and where entering the state is made easier with an international airport, ports and a border with Canada.
“Globalization has made international borders increasingly porous, and the scale of human trafficking has proliferated,” Basu said. “And even though trafficking is now recognized as a human rights issue, other dimensions of the trade – such as public health, labor rights, immigration law and criminal justice – are still not given enough attention.”
These issues will be addressed at the Jan. 11-12 public conference; “Human Trafficking in the Era of Globalization: Forced Labor, Involuntary Servitude and Corporate & Civic Responsibility.” Researchers, lawmakers, human rights advocates, experts in international corporate policies, law enforcement officials and others will participate. The agenda and registration are online.