Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Rich in funds but short on facts: the high cost of human trafficking awareness campaigns

Efforts to raise public awareness of human trafficking are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. They raise fear and funds far more than help the vulnerable.

Anne Elizabeth Moore
20 June 2019, 7.12pm
The 'Walk for Freedom' in Stuttgart, Germany, on 17 October 2015.
Christoph Schmidt/DPA/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Several fundamental issues have been obfuscated or overlooked by public awareness campaigns focused on human trafficking. Instead of identifying root causes, such as poverty, campaigns too often direct resources away from effective programmes toward marketing, thereby enriching the coffers of organisational staff and the often for-profit public relations contractors tapped to create campaigns. While the base intention of any public awareness campaign should be to foster wider and more accurate knowledge of a given subject, human trafficking awareness efforts have done little to clarify the issues at stake. Even the term itself remains vague and ill-defined, often appearing as a synonym for slavery, prostitution, debt bondage, or even legal sex work.

The popularity of awareness raising stands in stark contrast to the paucity of organisations that research or gather data on human trafficking.

The claims and finances of the majority of the top anti-trafficking organisations in the United States – such as Polaris Project, Demand Abolition, Not For Sale, Truckers Against Trafficking, and the International Justice Mission – share common and concerning features. Most, for example, exclusively claim to serve female victims of forced sexual exploitation. This narrow focus comes despite the fact that such cases comprise only a fifth of the overall global population of victims of forced labour, as calculated by the International Labour Organisation. Sexual exploitation may offer a possibility to create alluring graphics, but does not play a role in the majority of cases of human trafficking.

The money behind the campaigns

A similar wrong-headedness seems to plague those who make spending decisions at anti-trafficking organisations. In 2015 I examined records from the 50 most popular organisations – those that appeared most frequently in news stories, other media, or in conversations with experts in the field – and discovered that they shared an annual budget of around $686 million the previous year. Dividing this figure evenly among the 2,037 federal and state-level cases of human trafficking prosecuted in 2014 in the United States, we might imagine that these organisations could offer victim support – say, housing – to the tune of at least $300,000 per case. Yet in 2014, there were only around a thousand beds available in the country for victims of trafficking.

The 'Walk for Freedom' in Stuttgart, Germany, on 17 October 2015. The event was organised by 'The A21 Campaign'. Christoph Schmidt/DPA/Press Association. All rights reserved.

A follow-up report into the 36 top-earning anti-trafficking organisations in the United States revealed a shared budget of $1.2 billion in 2012 (the most recent year complete financial information was available). Slightly less than half this amount came from government agencies. However, between a third and a quarter of these organisations received no government funds at all.

Read more about armed rescue groups

Research into these anti-trafficking organisations also revealed that 32 of 36 offered (armed) rescue services. Seven of these organisations involved in armed rescues received no government funding whatsoever, meaning that anti-trafficking organisations were effectively operating a non-governmental militia, or paramilitary agency.

Awareness to what end?

The only programme offered more consistently than rescue is awareness raising, which 33 of the 36 top-earning organisations claim to perform. These efforts are described as screening films and hosting talks. Significantly, the popularity of awareness raising stands in stark contrast to the paucity of organisations – four only – that do any research into or data gathering on human trafficking.

Another key finding from this research was that top-funded anti-trafficking organisations in the United States are distinctly disempowering for women in general and for victims of human trafficking in particular. Fewer than half offered women any leadership roles in the organisation. Only five had trafficking survivors on staff or boards in any position.

Anti-trafficking efforts in the United States fail to provide adequate victim services, are unable to effectively identify root causes, and struggle to effectively promote awareness. Their main contribution has instead been to raise both fear and funds. To what end? I suggest – as explored more thoroughly in my book Threadbare – that human-trafficking awareness campaigns supplant any real address of the systemic corporate abuse of female workers around the globe.

Human-trafficking awareness campaigns supplant any real address of the systemic corporate abuse of female workers around the globe.

When we reduce global concerns about women's labour to questions of trafficking – which strips women of agency – we overlook the much bigger and more profound abuse undertaken by the global garment industry. Due to a combination of trade policies with developing nations around the world and cultural restrictions on women working outside the home, the garment industry remains the only legal job available to most women. This pattern is most clear in the developing world, but if we consider the sales teams of fast-fashion retail outlets, female warehouse employees, and models as part of the garment trade employment force, we also gain a more complete picture of the garment industry’s overall impact on women.

Pay is low, hours are long and often unpredictable, working conditions can be dangerous, and sexual assault rates run consistently rampant throughout all sectors of the garment industry. These are no shortage of reasons to leave such jobs, even when there are few other jobs available. This is one reason a healthy sex trade can often be found in heavy garment-producing nations. More and more frequently, sex work is only criminalised thanks to pressure from the United States, often as a rider in trade deals. Criminalisation is in turn presented as an anti-trafficking measure, whereupon further facilities are funded and installed to fight trafficking.

In developing nations, a majority of the ‘victims’ of ‘human trafficking’ being ‘rehabilitated’ in such facilities may be at-will sex workers. Rehabilitation consists of job training – usually for the exact same garment manufacturing jobs women may have left in the first place. Then, upon release, women are shuttled back into the garment trade they may be hoping to escape. Given this pipeline, it should come as no surprise that international anti-trafficking facilities are funded in large part by garment manufacturers.

Human trafficking awareness campaigns are not only short on facts, but also offer little to no tangible support to victims. They muddy the clear need for real accountability of the labour abuses of women workers, and allow for a conscripted supply of labour into the dangerous and low-wage garment industry.


This series has been produced with support from Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.


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