By Whitner Chase, Humanitas Global
In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September each year. Known also as International Workers Day in other countries, this holiday is a celebration of big victories for workers’ rights, and a call to action for challenges that remain. One of those remaining challenges is the millions of human beings enslaved in forced labor. When measured by the US State Department in 2012, the global number of enslaved people was 27 million. How can something so wrong be so prolific 150 years after most countries abolished slave labor? There are three major factors: Education, legislation, and corruption. Each is of equal importance and cannot achieve sustained progress without improvement in the other areas.
Education prevents vulnerability. This is especially true for women, who represent a disproportionate amount of human trafficking victims, particularly in the sex slave trade, where women and girls make up 98% of the victims, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). If a woman or girl has the opportunity to go to school and learn skills that will empower her in the workplace, the likelihood that she will fall into poverty and the trap of a trafficker will be lower. Education is the most important factor for empowerment of potential trafficking victims. It does not, however, take action on those who prey on the vulnerable.
According to a 2009 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOC) global report on trafficking in persons, the world saw significant progress in the enactment of legislation against human trafficking. After the UN Trafficking Protocol was established in 2003, many countries began to pass laws that criminalized trafficking, at least for sexual exploitation and forced labor. By November 2008, 98 countries had done so. The presence of any legislation whatsoever is an important deterrent to traffickers, but it is imperative that these laws continue to be amended or otherwise changed to ensure that the are up-to-date and as effective as possible. A useful check on current legislation is a national action plan against trafficking. At the time of publication for the UNODC report, just over ½ of the 155 countries surveyed had established a national action plan. In these countries, it is clear that the issue of human trafficking is an important part of the political agenda, and that governments will review progress on trafficking, to evaluate what is working and what is not.
A third major factor is corruption. Although the causes of corruption are difficult to generalize, it is safe to say that the potential for economic profit probably plays a significant role. The Economist wrote that human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar industry. This seems like an unfathomable value, but market rules are different for human trafficking victims, especially in the sex trade. Since the services of victims can be coerced for a profit many times per day, demand drives this market. Additionally, corruption doesn’t just pertain to people, but to governments as well. In some countries, the slave trade makes up over 10% of their annual GDP, so the incentive to crack down on the activity is less valuable. Although the obvious benefits of alternatives to trafficking make the decision to enforce anti-trafficking laws seem easy, once an individual or government is trapped into a certain pattern of (in)action, making a change is more difficult than it sounds. This is why the constant work of the ILO, UNODC, and other organizations is so important.
As the United States approaches Labor Day it’s important to remain mindful of those who do not have the opportunity to celebrate the freedom we have in our daily work. If we educate ourselves on the plight of those without freedom, and learn about the human trafficking industry and laws against it in our own nation, we will have taken an important step towards creating a better world. Furthermore, let’s celebrate the valiant work of the organizations who combat human trafficking, and join them in their fight to end this shameful act in whatever way we can. Ending injustice and promoting decent economic growth are two of the Global Goals to which world leaders will commit in New York at the end of September. Armed with the right information and a strong will, we can make them happen.