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Human trafficking: The modern form of slavery

by Gina Hathon

As films such as Lincoln celebrate the man who abolished slavery, one cannot help but feel a swell of pride at how far society has progressed since slavery divided our great United States of America. There are indicators, however, that we may not be as far removed as we think. Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, and it is the fastest growing illegal industry in the world.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

Victims of human trafficking are both males and females of varying ages from around the globe. And though prostitution and commercial sex trafficking get most of the “lime-light,” trafficking also occurs through forced labor. Settings for forced labor include the domestic, hotel, factory, restaurant, and agricultural realms.

There are four major types of trafficking as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA): sex trafficking, bonded labor, forced labor, and child labor. Victims of sex trafficking are subjected to various forms of commercial sexual exploitation including pornography, live sex shows, mail order brides, prostitution, stripping, sex tourism, and military prostitution.

Bonded labor, more commonly referred to as debt bondage and the least well known by the public, is the most prevalent method of enslavement. Traffickers enslave victims by demanding their labor as a repayment of a debt—the exact parameters of which are not ever strictly defined. In many cases, the value of the victim’s work is far greater than the original “borrowed” sum.

Forced labor is enacted through threats of violence or some other form of punishment. Victims of forced labor have restricted freedom and an ownership hierarchy is established between traffickers and victims. Forced labor can take the form of domestic servitude, agricultural labor, sweatshop or factory labor, janitorial or service industry labor, and begging.

Child labor is perhaps the most hazardous to the health of its victims. According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are involved in debt bondage, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, drug trade, arms trade, and other illegal activities around the globe. These forms of trafficking, while harmful to any individual, are most dangerous for children’s mental, spiritual, moral and social development and can interfere with their education.

Due to its invisible nature, human trafficking can, and has, remained elusive in society. Traffickers use control as a key to keep victims enslaved and isolated from society. Debt bondage labor trafficking relies solely on control to keep victims enslaved. After arriving in a new country, traffickers confiscate all legal documentation—passports, visas, and other identification documents—and threaten victims with deportation or imprisonment if they contact authorities without these documents. Victims are also isolated from family members and the public. Any contact with public is highly supervised or superficial in nature. Traffickers maintain monetary dominance over victims by holding their money for “safe-keeping.”

A conference in January of 2013 hosted by the University of Washington Women’s Center, School of Law, and Seattle University School of Law, presented a panel of survivors, who shared their trafficking experiences. A common denominator for all survivors (two female and one male) was that each immigrated into the United States legally with false hopes for legal work. After passing through customs, their traffickers took their passports and each was deposited into a form of forced labor. Two were placed in domestic settings as housekeepers and child caretakers and the other was forced to work twenty-four hours a day at an assisted living facility.

All three survivors highlighted how helpless they felt regarding the control and dominance their traffickers exerted over them. Phillip, who was never allowed a period of rest while working in the assisted living facility, was kept under debt bondage. After his legal entry into the U.S., Phillip was told that he must work to pay off his debt from the immigration process. Both women in domestic settings were threatened with deportation should they contact authorities; they were kept within the confines of the house in which they worked.

Despite the control and the isolation, there are still ways to identify victims of human trafficking—most of them health related. Due to the hazardous nature of trafficking, often times victims will need to visit a health care provider. During these visits, the potential for identifying a human trafficking situation is high if the medical care provider is alert to the types of behaviors of victims and traffickers.

Dr. Suzanne Poppema, Director of Medical International Consulting and speaker at the UW’s conference, discussed behavioral flags of human trafficking during medical care. There are a myriad of health issues caused by the conditions of forced labor and commercial sex trafficking. The most common of which are sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, pelvic pain, urinary difficulties, and unwanted pregnancy; infertility from chronic untreated infections or botched abortions and infections and mutilations from unsanitary medical care from unqualified individuals; chronic back, hearing, cardiovascular, or respiratory problems, and weak eyes or vision problems. Additionally, victims can have undetected or untreated diseases—such as diabetes or cancer, malnourishment, serious dental problems, substance addiction and abuse, signs of physical torture such as bruising and scarring. Psychological trauma from daily mental torture and culture shock are also indicators of human trafficking.

These health problems in tandem with possessive behavior on the part of the traffickers that accompany victims, such as relentless attention to the victim, refusal to leave victim alone, assertion of information about victim to health providers, can serve as red flags to medical care providers for identifying victims of human trafficking. Dr. Poppema recommends attempting to get the victim alone for questioning—with a translator if necessary—prior to alerting the proper authorities.

The Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition (HHRC) helps victims of trafficking, but also has developed and enacted a training program called, H.E.A.R. in order to educate health professionals on the signs of human trafficking. Their three-part training is designed to educate health care professionals on human trafficking, teach them how to identify a victim in a clinical setting, ask specific questions to reveal critical information, and what policies and procedures to follow in order to connect a victim with appropriate support. Available through both an in-person and web-based facilitation, the HHRC offers the training free-of-charge through Texas Children’s Hospital.

Programs such as the nationally reaching Polaris Project and the California based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) aim to empower victims of human trafficking and push for legislation that allows victims to procure a green card after their rescue. Persons are encouraged to call the national human trafficking hotline (1-888-373-7888) in order to be connected with local resources and services for victims.

On February 27, 2013, Wyoming became the fiftieth state to outlaw human trafficking. Eileen Campbell, the International Justice Mission’s (IJM) director of advocacy, comments on this monumental triumph: “As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this year, IJM is encouraged to see that all 50 states have now made human trafficking a criminal offense. Wyoming now beings the important work of ensuing that first responders, law enforcement, and service providers have the knowledge and training to combat human trafficking.”

  One day later on February 28, 2013, Congress passed its own anti-human trafficking bill, further unifying the efforts of the United States in combating this heinous crime. This bill sets up standards to reinforce the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.  Director of Policy, Mary Ellison issued a statement on behalf of the Polaris Project detailing the parameters of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA): “Today’s bill sets important funding benchmarks, encourages distribution of the Polaris Project-operated National Human Trafficking Hotline number by federal agencies, establishes grant programs for state agencies to assist child victims of sex trafficking, strengthens the ability to prosecute those who fraudulently hire individuals in foreign labor contracts, and more.”

These two legislative acts are worth celebration and certainly put a legal roadblock up for trafficking, just as the Emancipation Proclamation did in 1863; it is, however, important to look at the factors involved in generating this growing industry. The devastating truth is that many victims of human trafficking willingly enter into what they perceive as job opportunities and are then forced into trafficking through tactics such as debt bondage. All survivors from the conference panel, for example, volunteered to travel into the United States. Each was promised a job that would be profitable to send money home to their poverty-ridden families. After passing through customs, traffickers took advantage of their economical need and their psychological fragility—culture shock, isolation, etc.—and forced each victim to labor without receiving the wages they were promised.

If the end goal of these legislative acts and organizations like the Polaris Project hope to suppress human trafficking, they must also look at solutions for the factors—i.e. poverty—that drive people into looking for economic opportunities.

The conference I attended, Human Trafficking in an Era of Globalization, was put on by the University of Washington Women’s Center, the University of Washington School of Law, and the Seattle University School of Law. For further information about presenters or resources, visit the conference website at:


Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking:
Conference Materials & Resources: Human Trafficking in an Era of Globalization: Forced Labor, Involuntary Servitude, and Corporate & Civic Responsibility, January 11-12, 2013:
Houston Rescue & Restore Coalition:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement:
International Labour Organization:
Office of the Administration for Children & Families:
Polaris Project:
World Health Organization: and

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