Basics of Human Trafficking

Most Americans today think that slavery is a thing of the past. The word “slavery” brings to mind images of Southern cotton fields in the 1850’s, with Africans forced to toil without pay on the plantations, under fear of lashing or worse.

But slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery still exists today. It has simply taken on a new and more all-encompassing name: human trafficking.

Approximately 27 million people are in slavery today. This is the largest absolute number of slaves that there has ever been in human history. By comparison, about 6 million people were taken from Africa to the New World and enslaved during the entire eighteenth century.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing transnational crime. There is debate about whether human trafficking is currently the second- or third-largest transnational crime (after drug trafficking and perhaps arms trafficking), but if it has not already, it will shortly overtake arms trafficking for the number two spot. Human trafficking is a tremendously lucrative criminal business, estimated to generate at least $32 billion annually (more than Google, Nike, and Starbucks combined).

Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, to say nothing of the millions trafficked within their own countries. About 80% of trafficking victims are women and girls, and about 50% are children.
Human trafficking is illegal everywhere, but happens everywhere. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are the two main forms of human trafficking, and in practice they often (some would say usually) overlap to some degree. See Types of Human Trafficking for more information.

Globalization has steadily lowered the price of slaves around the world today. Whereas in 1850 in the American South a slave cost around $40,000 (adjusted to today’s money), the average price of a slave in the world today is a mere $90. Human trafficking expert Kevin Bales points out that this drop in the price of slaves has made them increasingly “disposable,” since it is relatively cheap and easy to replace them. Thus, if a trafficked person gets sick, pregnant, or old, they are simply discarded and replaced.

Types of Human Trafficking

There are two main types of human trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

Sex trafficking

Sex trafficking occurs when a person is made to perform commercial sexual acts through force, fraud, and/or coercion; or when a person made to perform commercial sexual acts is under the age of 18. Examples of sex trafficking include forced prostitution of adults, any type of child prostitution, trafficking for forced marriage, and more.

Labor trafficking

Labor trafficking involves recruiting, transporting, harboring, providing, or purchasing a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Examples include forced labor on American farms under violence, domestic servitude (maids and nannies), sweatshops, and fraudulent labor contracts that keep people in bondage through an ever-increasing debt. Note that labor trafficking can happen in any industry, including agriculture, manufacturing, restaurant work, construction, fishing, mining, custodial work, and many more.

It is important to recognize that despite their distinct definitions, sex and labor trafficking often overlap in real trafficking situations. For example, a woman trafficked primarily into prostitution (sex trafficking) might also be forced to clean or cook around the brothel (labor trafficking).

Other types of human trafficking include:

Child soldiers

Child soldiers. A notable subcategory of labor trafficking, child soldiering occurs when a person under the age of 18 is made to be a combatant in a national army or rebel militia. Examples include the so-called “Invisible Children” forced to fight for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group originally from Uganda, or children impressed into military service in Burma (Myanmar).

Organ trafficking

Organ trafficking. Although not officially recognized by the US government as a form of human trafficking, the UN and a number of foreign governments include forced removal of human organs for sale on the black market as a “service” under the heading of labor trafficking. An example of organ trafficking is the execution and organ harvesting of practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a sect of Buddhism outlawed in China.