As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it is to hear about human trafficking, it is a social problem that’s alive and kicking in communities across the United States. And while no one truly wants to hear the horrific examples of human rights violations, it’s vitally important that Americans become more aware of the problem.
Awareness, as painful as it may be, is the first step towards action and social responsibility. Based on statistics and what’s known about the rise of human trafficking in the United States, it’s likely that trafficking is occurring in your hometown without your awareness.
What Is Human Trafficking?
Human trafficking is a heinous violation of human rights. Victims of human trafficking fall prey to several types of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, and exploitation of the body for purposes of organ removal. The most common types of human trafficking are for sex and labor, but of these, sex trafficking far outpaces trafficking for labor.
Regardless of the type of exploitation that occurs, human trafficking is modern-day slavery. Traffickers use force, coercion, or fraud to draw a victim into a situation where he or she is required to perform acts against his or her will. Trafficking can occur domestically or across international borders.
And as nightmarish and shocking as these violations are, the worst part is how frighteningly common they are. Human trafficking falls just behind drug dealing as the second-largest criminal industry in the world (it’s currently tied for second with illicit weapons trafficking). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking is also the fastest growing criminal industry and is estimated to have a market value in excess of $32 billion annually.
Unfortunately, the United States is considered a “destination country” for human trafficking. This means our nation’s consumer choices have led to the consumption of people’s rights for its convenience and gratification. A destination country is any nation that serves as the final stop for a victim of human trafficking. Many wealthy nations are considered destination countries because wealthy nations are the source of demand for the consumption of victims.
There are two main categories related to sex trafficking: forced sexual acts, and inducement of a minor. According to federal law, sex trafficking occurs when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Victims of sex trafficking are taken from international and domestic sources. Many victims from international locations are kidnapped or promised a new life in America or another destination country, only to be forced into bondage. Domestic victims are usually selected and groomed as minors, often as they’re trying to escape a home environment of abuse and neglect. Regardless of the source, victims of sex trafficking endure frightening and exploitative living conditions without a hope for escape.
If you think that sex trafficking doesn’t affect you, consider the following:
- The Involvement of Children. UNICEF reports that nearly two million children are held in sexual bondage across the globe. They are often bought and sold for a small fee and undergo hundreds – if not thousands – of sexual violations in a short period of time. Of domestic victims, most enter the industry as minors while seeking escape from a bad home environment. Although many people think of girls as the primary victims of sex trafficking, boys are also exploited for sexual purposes.
- The Plight of Women. According to the U.S. Department of State, approximately 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls. In the United States, these women surface in brothels, strip clubs, escort services, and porn, and as street prostitutes.
- A Catalyst for the AIDS Epidemic. As you can imagine, sex trafficking is marked by high-risk intercourse and disease. The global AIDS epidemic is closely linked to sex trafficking, especially since victims are moved from place to place and are frequently required to perform multiple sexual acts each night.
- Domestic and International Cases. The Federal Government estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked into the United States each year, but exact numbers are exceedingly difficult to compile. These statistics do not include domestic victims. Domestic victims are citizens of the United States who are forced into sexual labor by a pimp or predator. For example, The Justice Department estimates that 450,000 children run away from home each year, and that a third of runaway teenagers are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
Sexual trafficking is in your community, but it often runs completely under the radar. Most Americans hear about drug busts, but don’t always hear about sex trafficking busts. To put the problem in context, a massive 2013 FBI bust called Operation Cross Country led to the arrest of 150 traffickers and the rescue of hundreds of children in 76 cities across the United States. These cities included both large and small communities.
The industry is highly secretive and is often found in surprising places, such as “harmless” strip clubs. It impacts children and families in your community and abroad, it exploits the vulnerable, and it increases the risk of sexually transmitted disease.
Trafficking for Labor
There’s often an overlap between sex trafficking and labor trafficking, as many victims are required to do both. Federal law defines human trafficking for labor as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
You can find victims of human trafficking for labor in many United States industries, such as agriculture, domestic work, factory labor, restaurants, and strip clubs. Of course, not all workers in these settings are victims, but these industries are hotbeds for trafficking activity due to the immigration status of workers, transience of the jobs, and the need for unskilled labor.
There’s a chance you’re purchasing items made by modern-day slaves, even if you’re consciously making an effort to purchase domestically produced goods, such as fresh produce or garments. Before you write this off, consider the following facts:
- Trafficked Laborers Work in Deplorable Conditions. Not all exploitative labor is considered trafficking, but victims of human trafficking for labor often work 14- to 18-hour days, seven days a week, for little or no pay. If they are paid, they’re often indentured to their bosses and must return their paychecks to pay off the debt. This type of labor occurs in every state. Though the examples are endless, a 2010 bust of a Floridian labor trafficking ring found 39 Filipino immigrants who were forced to work in country club restaurants, return to deplorable conditions at night with little food, and turn over their entire paychecks to the fraudulent staffing company that made it possible for them to “build a new life” in America.
- They’re Often Children. Many migrant workers, hospitality workers, factory workers, and domestic workers are children who have been illegally trafficked into the industry. Sometimes these workers come to the United States to seek a new life with their families, only to be held upon arrival by unscrupulous company owners or managers. Other times, they and their families are indentured to the staffing companies that oversaw their transition into the United States. These children are frequently held apart from their mothers and fathers.
- They’re Legal Workers and Citizens. Although traffickers may use a worker’s illegal immigrant status as a source of coercion into labor, many workers aren’t illegal immigrants at all. Some victims are born and raised in the United States, but become vulnerable to trafficking due to socioeconomic status or language barrier. For instance, many seasonal farm workers in states like Texas and California are vulnerable because they don’t speak English and are living in poverty. These farm workers may be United States citizens or documented workers, but they fly under the radar of law enforcement, giving managers the chance to separate them from family members, force long hours of labor for little pay, and hold them against their will.
- They’re Controlled by Fear, Confusion, and Debt. Victims of human trafficking for labor are coerced into their situation due to a mixture of fear, confusion, and debt. Undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they go to law enforcement. Immigrants may have difficulty understanding or communicating in English, and they’re kept in isolation so they can’t reach out for help. Finally, many victims are brought to the United States by “labor recruiters” who charge a fee of $2,000 to $20,000 to bring the worker to the U.S. The workers are then paid so poorly and charged so many “fees” that they can never hope to repay the debt. Victims are then controlled by this debt, finding themselves in indentured servitude.
The Influence of Consumer Choices on Trafficking
Human trafficking is a complex problem that is influenced by laws, policies, economics, private and public agencies, and culture. There’s not an easy fix, and consumer choices alone cannot change the plight of millions of victims. But many countries, including the United States, have begun looking at supply/demand economics as a source of influence. The hypothesis is that reducing demand for trafficking victims (through a mixture of harsher penalties for the traffickers and increased awareness by consumers) will begin to reduce the supply over time.
Here’s what you can do as a consumer to reduce United States demand for modern-day slaves:
- Know Your Sources. When possible, understand the sources of the products and services you enjoy. Products of Slavery features an interactive map that helps you understand which goods are most likely sourced by slaves, so you can find ways to avoid them. Examples include rice purchased from India, blueberries and strawberries from Argentina, and even fireworks from the Philippines.
- Reduce Risk. When you don’t know your sources, you can at least reduce your risk. Avoid the industries associated with human trafficking, such as sexually-oriented businesses, internationally-sourced garments, and internationally-sourced precious metals. Most human trafficking victims are held for sexual exploitation, so industries that support the trafficking of victims for sexual purposes bear special attention. Consumers cannot always know if they’re watching porn featuring minors, if they’re watching strippers who were trafficked into the business, or if they’re purchasing a sex act from a woman with a pimp who threatens her life. If you cannot know the source of your sexual gratification, then you can at least reduce your risk by not participating. Remember that the demand for purchased sexuality is what drives sex trafficking in the first place.
- Understand Your Slavery Footprint. If you live in the United States and consume goods and services, there’s a strong likelihood that a modern-day slave has worked to produce the goods and services you enjoy. Slave labor is often in the supply chain for popular goods, such as internationally-sourced seafood, makeup, diamond jewelry, and fashionable garments. Go to Slavery Footprint to determine which of your habits and purchases are most likely tied to human trafficking. This knowledge, in turn, can influence your choices as you move forward.
- Boycott Goods Produced by Slaves. Although you likely can’t know everything about your supply chain, take action on the items you can. Boycott those goods that you know are likely touched by slavery, and replace them with products that are certified Fair Trade. Not every industry uses the Fair Trade certification, but you can start with small purchases, such as coffee, body care, cocoa, and garments.
- Find Out More, and Act. There’s a wealth of information about human trafficking, and many public and private agencies are taking strong action against this gross violation of human rights. Check out the Polaris Project for more information about human trafficking and how you can help prevent and rehabilitate victims in the United States. You can also look for local agencies that are doing the hard work of addressing the needs of victims as they exit the industry.
Human trafficking is closer than you think. It’s in your community, and it’s a part of the products and services you purchase every day. But you don’t have to just resign yourself to remaining part of an exploitative supply chain. Instead, arm yourself with knowledge and take action against this violation of victims around the world.
How has human trafficking impacted your community? Has your community taken action to prevent human trafficking?
(photo credit: Dirk Ott/Shutterstock)