The Common Thread

Follow the money…

Slavery is not a new issue, but our modern economy and society have led to a resurgence in the industry. Due to the world’s insatiable demand for cheap goods, cheap labor becomes an integral part of the system that meets these demands. In the 1860s, the average cost of a slave would have been around $40,000 (accounting for inflation). Nowadays, the cost for a slave is roughly $90 and can often be negotiated for an even lower price.
~ Sean Carasso — Founder: FALLING WHISTLES, dedicated to freeing child soldiers in the Congo

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar enterprise rivaled only by the international trade in illegal drugs and arms. As many as twenty-seven million people are trapped in slavery. More than half are children. Human trafficking is global in scope, and takes many forms. Consequently it may be viewed through many different lenses. It may be seen as a moral, religious, or ethical issue, as indeed it was by the abolitionists of the early eighteenth century. It may be considered primarily as a criminal justice challenge to be met by the vigorous application of the law. Many groups look at the issue in the framework of human rights abuse. Then there are sociological, cultural, historical, feminist and other political views as well, with each emphasizing a different aspect or response.

Sex trafficking may include street prostitution, escort services, pornography production, peep shows, massage parlors, phone sex operations, strip clubs and exotic dancing, fetish clubs, sex tourism operations, and ‘mail-order bride’ rackets. Children, being especially vulnerable, are often targets for sexual exploitation.
Labor trafficking is widespread in agricultural production, in much labor intensive manufacturing, in service industries, as well as many smaller enterprises that are not well regulated. It encompasses debt bondage, domestic servitude, outright forced slave labor, prison labor and child labor which includes begging rings and child soldiers. Children are frequently subject to the most extreme labor abuses.

Both of these broad categories, sex trafficking and labor trafficking, may occur within borders or may involve crossing borders. Both men and women are its victims as well as it perpetrators. Victims may be lured and initially complicit in their bondage, while others are simply kidnapped or purchased. Human trafficking occurs in factories, fields, and mines, in offices, restaurants, and homes, and on the streets of nearly every country in the world.

But in all these cases, the common thread in every instance is: ongoing exploitation through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. That is the essential element that defines the crime of human trafficking. Conditions are manipulated so that people become trapped in a web of sweat, fear, and deceit. With this abuse taking such a variety of forms, it is easy to lose sight of this common thread, the continuous illegal exploitation of another human being for profit. We believe that greater focus on this economic foundation of human trafficking, will suggest avenues for eradicating it that other approaches may not.

At the close of this past century a number of factors gave a huge boost to human trafficking, giving it a global scale, and making it the fastest growing criminal enterprise at this time. Three overriding events created a ‘perfect storm’ for this crime to flourish.

First was the decades long march toward a globally integrated economy that accelerated following World War II and which still continues. Second was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s which, however much it may have been welcomed from a political perspective, resulted in enormous disruption to the social fabric of Eastern Europe and eroded the stabilizing influence of a strong central government. Lastly the successful formation of the European Union broke down barriers across a huge area of Western Europe and greatly eased the costs and difficulties of moving people without documents across borders. In addition to these monumental changes, there has been a huge increase in the outsourcing of manufacturing, especially to Asia and South America where labor markets are far less regulated.  The recent worldwide economic downturn has only exacerbated this trend.

Traffickers are opportunistic hunters. In the past few decades the opportunity for profit has skyrocketed, and the risks of being penalized have greatly diminished. It is estimated that human trafficking accounts for more than 32 billion dollars in illegal profits every year, more than Nike, Google, and Starbucks combined. Yet it remains an almost invisible crime.


Brazil’s ‘dirty list’ names and shames companies involved in slave labour,  by Annie Kelly, The Guardian, 24 July, 2013

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