Human trafficking: US must do more to help victims, fight scourge

Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on combating forced labor and modern-day slavery. On June 20, the State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, documenting the progress of countries around the world in combating human trafficking. The enormous scope of the report underscores the reality that human trafficking happens in every nation in the world, including right here in the United States.

Victims are trafficked for both sex and labor, forced to work in virtually every sector of the U.S. economy – from farming and manufacturing to meat and poultry processing, domestic service, and the hospitality sector. 

The American anti-trafficking movement has secured important laws and policies focused on victims, in particular the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, and this year’s report, “The journey from victim to survivor” highlights these victories. However, anti-trafficking efforts have had no significant impact on reducing the overall incidence of trafficking.


Under U.S. law, human trafficking entails the recruiting, transporting, transferring, or harboring of another human being, using abduction, threats, force, or coercion to control that person – and make a profit off of them –through sexual exploitation or other forms of forced work. Some victims are abducted while others are coerced or deceived.  Fleeing poverty, war, violence or abuse, victims seek a better life, only to be duped or coerced and held against their will.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic from the new report is the stark contrast between the number of people trapped in modern slavery – 21 million – and the number of reported prosecutions of traffickers worldwide -- 9,460. Dive deeper and you find that of those prosecutions, nearly one in three did not result in a conviction.

When you break it down country by country, the number of prosecutions in the United States, a Tier 1 top-rated nation, is far from impressive. According to the report in 2013, the Department of Justice prosecuted only 161 human trafficking cases in 2013, putting 174 traffickers behind bars.  While it is clear that some traffickers are being prosecuted for crimes other than human trafficking – such as money laundering or acts of violence, such cases would not increase the statistics substantially.

Moreover, while there has been a slight increase in the number of prosecutions and convictions for human trafficking year over year, it has not nearly kept pace with the rapid growth of human trafficking. According to a report issued by the International Labor Organization in May of this year, the profitability of human trafficking has increased five-fold over the past decade and is now estimated to be roughly $150 billion annually.

Second only to narcotics in profitability, human trafficking is big business. Traffickers operate with relative impunity, while victims who have been rescued are quickly replaced.  The endless demand for cheap labor and commercial sex keeps the heinous trafficking business booming.

This big business is bad business – for the victims, to be sure, but also for U.S. companies and the American economy at large. Human trafficking creates an unfair advantage for those enterprises that use slave labor: their costs are lower and so are their prices.  And, traffickers do not pay taxes on their income – even as they create enormous need for public spending – on security and policing, border control, and victim rehabilitation.

In addition, many traffickers exploit legitimate businesses to recruit, transport, and house victims and to launder money.  Many companies are coopted unwittingly, and may not realize the threats they face, and the risks to their employees or brands.

The release of the TIP report in June needs to serve as a wake up call – and should rally a range of sectors in the United States to join forces to change the business proposition for traffickers by making modern day slavery both more costly and more risky.

At a minimum, this means redoubled efforts in prosecutions and convictions.  And it means not only going after the slave holders – as is now largely done – but working back through the network of exploiters, and punishing the recruiters, the transporters, those who house and guard victims, and those who launder money and bribe officials. I’m working on a new campaign with Human Rights First to provide common sense solutions to help the government and law enforcement do just that.

It is also critical that the U.S. government include sophisticated financial investigations as a part of every federal human trafficking case -- to trace the money trail back through all phases of the trafficking business.

Finally, the United States should work more intensively with other governments to investigate instances of transnational human trafficking, to bring exploiters to justice, and stop money laundering and the re-investment of criminal proceeds into legitimate and illegitimate businesses.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said during his remarks announcing the 2014 TIP Report, “Wherever rule of law is weak, where corruption is most ingrained, and where populations can’t count on the protection of governments and of law enforcement, there you find zones of vulnerability to trafficking.”

We must work together to ensure that the United States is a place where the rule of law is strong and traffickers from all parts of the trafficking exploitation network are brought to justice, taking away their profit motive so that we can shut down the business of trafficking once and for all.  It is well past time for all those who find modern-day slavery intolerable to force exploiters to close up shop.