Human trafficking: from outrage to action

If we are to have any chance of addressing trafficking, we should work towards the elimination of labour recruitment fees; advocate for a global minimum wage; and look at ways of criminalizing the knowing or reckless use of the services of a victim of trafficking. Español

Anne T. Gallagher
9 October 2014

There’s so much emotion and sentiment and evangelizing around trafficking. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling good about feeling bad; to imagine that speaking about injustice is the same as doing something about it; to fool ourselves that we can spend or petition; tweet or ‘like’ our way out of these problems.

One of the painful lessons I’ve learned in fifteen years working in this area is that real change doesn’t – won’t ever - come easily. I’ve learned to be suspicious of those who propose quick fixes, who seek great victories. I’m wary of people who come to these issues with a grand narrative, a bucket of money, or an unshakeable conviction that their view is the right one: that their path is the only one.

For me that is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The ideas we are engaging with: human rights, the rule of law; equality between men and women, social justice are still new; they are still fragile. They fly in the face of human history and human experience, which has always accepted the domination of the strong over the weak - the rich over the poor.

These ideas are radical because, make no mistake, what we are really talking about is the redistribution of power:  taking power away from the strong – from those who have too much – and giving power to those who don’t have enough.

History, and our own experience, teaches us that those who hold power do not give it up easily. Once we understand that, we also come to understand that the struggle for human rights, equality and justice is not a one-off battle. It is, rather, a slow chipping away at structures, attitudes and behaviors that have defined the human condition and human relationships, for a very long time.

In short: I urge you to be brave, to be visionary, but to be in this for the long haul. Have no doubt: we’re going to eliminate HIV/AIDS and find a solution for global warming way before we end the exploitation of human beings for profit.

Where we have come from

I began working on trafficking back in 1998 at the UN. At that time, our understanding was informed by the reports we were receiving about cross-border exploitation of girls and young women in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. At that time, there was no accepted definition of “trafficking”, no understanding that men and boys could also be victims; no conception that the purposes of exploitation could be as varied as the potential for profit.

And it’s also important to point out that at this time, within the international system, the issue of human exploitation was not even part of the mainstream conversation: forced labour, bonded labour, servitude, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, all these concerns were pretty much off the table.

Countries would hide information - they would reject any criticisms, or attempts to find out what was going on - as a violation of their sovereignty. We didn’t really know what was happening and certainly didn’t have tools to do anything about it.


All that has changed. Today, it’s politically impossible for any country to defend exploitation of foreigners or nationals within their territory as not being the business of the international community.

It is also impossible for countries to hide what is happening: whether it's the organ trade in Egypt; debt bondage in the Australian sex industry; forced labour on US farms; or bonded labour in India. Everything’s different today because we know.

We’ve even come to understand how trafficking has infected global supply chains: that what we eat, wear, use and text with is often tainted with forced and exploitative labour.

We also have new and better tools to confront trafficking: strong international and regional treaties have provided the blueprint for new laws that might not be perfect but are a great improvement on what was there – or not there - before.

Through a combination of growing awareness and external and internal pressure, most countries have taken at least some steps in the direction of identifying and protecting victims and pursuing perpetrators. The US Government has reported that worldwide in 2012, there were more than 4700 convictions for trafficking offences and almost 47,000 victims were identified. These figures are still way too low but they are increasing, slowly, every year.

These changes are monumental and well worth celebrating.

But I’m also realistic about how little has really been achieved when we start to think about impact and real, lasting change. In fact, it seems very likely things are not improving and are quite possibly getting worse.

One challenge is the inadequacy of criminal justice responses. Like so many other crimes that predominantly affect women, the marginalized and the powerless, trafficking is just not a high priority in the criminal justice system of any country.

The rhetoric has certainly improved. But the institutional and attitudinal changes that are really necessary to end impunity and secure justice for victims are just not happening.

We need to demand more of our national criminal justice systems. We need to be prepared to ask the hard questions: why so few victims are identified, why so few investigations proceed to prosecutions; why so many prosecutions fail; why so few high-level exploiters have their assets confiscated or end up in prison. In the words of Trust Women, we need to put the Rule of Law behind those who have been trafficked. Anything less is a failure.

Another challenge is to address the vulnerability that underlies trafficking. Despite what Hollywood will have us believe, these things don't happen to us - or to our daughters. People end up in modern slavery when they are forced to take the kinds of risks that none of us will ever face.

Of course, we need to do something about the macro causes of this vulnerability such as poverty and inequality. But there are other, less monumental steps that could be taken. We could, for example, decide to outlaw recruitment fees: to make it illegal for any agency to charge employees for overseas job placements - or for any company or institution to accept the recruitment of their workers in this way.

Another idea: rather than End Poverty Now with all its paternalistic connotations of poor people depending on us to solve their problems, we could campaign for a global minimum wage: tied to purchasing power parity or some other meaningful economic measure. Why is a minimum wage good enough for us but not for those who produce the stuff and provide the services we consume?

And finally, we need to face the challenge of demand: Trafficking feeds into a global market that seeks cheap, unregulated and exploitable labour and the goods and services that such labour can produce.

In the strange world of trafficking advocacy, discussions around demand have come to be dominated by the issue of demand for commercial sex. The argument basically is: eliminate demand for commercial sex and you eliminate trafficking for sexual exploitation. For me, this kind of argument smacks of the grand narrative, quick fix approach that I’ve come to deeply distrust.

But I’m also curious why other, more logical approaches haven’t seen the light of day. For example, why don’t we criminalize the knowing or reckless use of the services of a trafficked person?

There can be no doubt that the sex industry of your country and mine contains a substantial proportion of women and girls who are trapped in a situation from which they can’t escape – perhaps through debt, perhaps through outright coercion or intimidation. It’s British and Australian men who are buying something that is effectively stolen. And the law can’t touch them, even if all the signs were present that the thing they were buying wasn’t being freely traded. They could be charged for a TV but not for a person. That’s just not good enough.

Thankfully, there are signs that talk and action around demand is shifting into new areas. For example, in educating consumers to make different decisions about what they buy; and securing commitment from global corporations for a slavery-free supply chain. That work is good, and important, just as long as it doesn’t feed into a generation of cyber-activists: those who imagine that clicking on an e-petition is the same as actually doing something.

And there are other aspects to demand that get less attention. My work is with governments and I’ve come to understand that we can’t absolve them from responsibility for generating and sustaining demand. Many countries of destination derive great benefit from cheap foreign labour that, deliberately left unprotected by law, can be moved on if and when circumstances require. Countries of origin often rely heavily on the remittances of their overseas workers and may be reluctant to interfere with a system that brings economic benefits – even if it is clear that some of their citizens are being severely exploited.

And every country that fails to protect migrants and migrant workers, whether legal or illegal, must take responsibility for creating an environment in which exploitation of these persons becomes both possible and worthwhile. Engaging with governments on these issues is difficult and often thankless work. But it’s an important part of the puzzle that shouldn’t be ignored.

In terms of general directions I am  proposing that : 

First: that we fight for a more effective criminal justice response. How dare Governments treat trafficking as a lesser crime? And shame on us for accepting this as normal.

Second: that we try to understand vulnerability to trafficking better so that we can respond in ways that reflect people’s lived experiences - rather than our ideas about them or what they need;

And third: that we reject the current stultified, polarizing approach to demand: that we look more deeply and broadly into those systems and practices that encourage and reward exploitation.

And in terms of very practical suggestions I am advocating three very specific actions: that we work towards the elimination of labor recruitment fees; that we advocate for a global minimum wage; and that we must look at ways of criminalizing the knowing or reckless use of the services of a victim of trafficking.

But in offering these ideas I also feel compelled to repeat my earlier warning: beware of the snake-oil salesman or woman: promising quick fixes and an easy road ahead. Accept that we won't find the solution to human exploitation in the next two days. But just maybe, we’ll move things along, even a little bit.

For me, that would be a very fine result.

This article was first published on 3 December 2013, and is an adapted version of the keynote speech given by Anne Gallagher at the Trust Women Conference in London.



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