Michelle Sicignano, LMSW

Michelle Sicignano, LMSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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A Primer on Human Trafficking

Social Justice Solutions – woman’s rights

A recent twitter chat at #SWunited hosted by Socialworkhelper.com discussed sex trafficking with the intention of sharing information on how social workers can identify, prepare and treat individuals suffering from slave trafficking.  I read little about identifying and treating, however questions were raised regarding prostitution as well as the idea of self-directed individuals freely choosing a career as sex-workers. As noted in a previous blog post entitled, The Growth of Misogyny and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, we live in an increasingly misogynistic society where rape is differentiated by those with political power between legitimate and illegitimate, and violent pornography is easily accessible to any 11 year old with computer access, and sexual violence is reported to be a growing trend, remember this point. The average prostitute enters the “profession” at 13 years old. In no state in our nation are children legally able to consent to sex, but across this nation kids get placed in foster care and are incarcerated as juvenile delinquents, often as young as 11, when arrested for prostitution. Though several states have redefined legal status to that of victim of human trafficking, thanks to rights worker’s efforts, funding has not provided the necessary services and supports to ensure the proper care of these young victims making this a hollow victory of lip service and paper protection. When the average age of entry into sex work is 13, it is hard to fathom there is any free choice in the action, however, that doesn’t negate the need for a harm reduction model.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, after drug dealing, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today, and it is the fastest growing. It generates billions of dollars annually and runs the gamut from the organized smuggling of people by international syndicates, to small groups, to individuals such as street pimps or even mothers or fathers selling their child, or the sexual use of their child, to women lured from their homes as “brides” then forced into domestic servitude or the sex trade. The United States Department of States Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, in their Trafficking in Persons Report of 2011, reports the major forms human trafficking include forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant laborers, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, and child soldiers. Of these, every category of human trafficking occurs in the United States, and in New York State, with perhaps the only exception being child soldiers.

It is widely reported that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history, and the cost of a slave has depreciated greatly. According to Ken Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, the average slave in the American South in 1850 cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money; today a slave costs an average of $90. Worldwide, it is estimated that 13-30 million people are currently living as slaves today and 600,000 to 800,000 are trafficked across borders each year. It is impossible to reach a consensus on the true scale of the problem, but many sources suggest that the figures are grossly undercounted and, due to the nature of the crime, it is difficult to accurately estimate the scope of the problem globally or locally. Citing statistics from the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports “up to two million people are trafficked worldwide every year. Domestically, the conservative estimate is between 15,000 and 18,000 people annually.  As many as 17,500 new slaves continue to enter bondage in the United States every year.  The US is one of the top 10 destinations for human trafficking”with tens of thousands of people trafficked into the country each year.

New York is one of the largest points of entry and exit for this industry, as are Florida, California and Texas. States such as California, Florida, New York, Nevada and Ohio are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking because of factors such as: proximity to international borders, number of ports and airports, significant immigrant population, and large economy that includes industries that attract forced labor. People are lured to the United States with promises of jobs, only to have their passports confiscated upon arrival and be coerced and threatened into working in various industries such as farming and agriculture, construction and service industries, and the sex trade.

Though anyone, woman, man, adult or child can be subject to human trafficking, those living in poverty, and women and children are especially vulnerable. Women and girls make up 56% of persons trafficked for the purposes of forced labor while men and boys make up 44%. In terms of those trafficked for the purposes of forced commercial sexual exploitation, women and girls make up 98% and men and boys comprise 2%. Children constitute 40-50% of the overall forced labor population.  43% percent of victims are trafficked for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, 32% are trafficked for the purposes of forced labor, and the remaining 25% are trafficked for a mixture of both or undetermined reasons. The main industries using forced labor are prostitution and sex services (46%), domestic service (27%), agriculture (10%), sweatshop/factory (5%), and restaurant and hotel work (4%).

Aside from the estimated 17,500 foreign nationals trafficked into the United States annually, the number of US citizens trafficked within the country is thought to be even higher. It’s estimated that more than 200,000 American children at high risk for trafficking into the sex industry each year. Vulnerable populations such as undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, and oppressed or marginalized groups are at the highest risk for exploitation. These high risk populations have severely limited opportunities due to status, fear and lack of resources. Despite this knowledge, over a decade’s worth of policy initiatives and legislation, and large sums of money put to the problem, very few traffickers have been brought to justice both in the United States, and abroad.


In 2000, the United States adopted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, to combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade slavery, and involuntary servitude, to reauthorize certain Federal programs to prevent violence against women and for other purposes. It has since been reaffirmed a number of times. New York State passed its Anti-Human Trafficking Law in 2007, further passing The Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act in 2008, taking effect in 2010, to provide some safe guards for victimized minors by decriminalizing prostitution by a person under legal age of consent, 18, and terming it an act of exploitation, thereby removing such youth from the criminal justice system and placing them under the jurisdiction of family court with appropriate services.  Again, however, there has been or real funding therefore little real services being provided. The penalties for patronizing a prostitute have also been elevated, especially for those under 14. While these are important elements, New York’s anti-trafficking law and the federal law place more importance on the sex trafficking aspect than the larger issues. In New York, Sex trafficking is a class B felony with a maximum sentence of 25 years and labor trafficking is a class D felony with a maximum sentence of 7 years. This makes owning a human being for domestic servitude or hard physical labor less of a crime, and that seems to be an unjustified and arbitrary distinction. Criminalizing prostitution offenses over other types of forced labor utilized by legal companies speaks to a gross imbalance and seems to protect the power structure of big business. Keep this in mind along with the previous mention of the growth of violent pornography.

Grass roots organizations, some started by victims of trafficking themselves, have gone some way in raising public awareness. GEMS, a New York based resource to help girls caught in the sex trade was founded by a women who was trafficked herself. There is some public awareness regarding the extent of the issue. However, whether due to its seeming insurmountable nature, or the idea that it doesn’t happen here or have a personal impact, many people opt to look the other way, or minimize the problem. People get blinded to suffering, and when the issue is convoluted with immigration policy, as in the case of migrant workers, or drug use and runaways, as in the case of teen prostitution, the sense of urgency and validity regarding this heinous and devastating global crime are masked.  Further, by not addressing certain aspects of this issue with vigor, the power structure basically sanctions such practices. Focusing the majority of attention on a specific part of the sex trade, prostitution, the larger issue is obscured.  The social and economic reasons for such practices persist and go unanswered while governmental bodies give the appearance of taking firm action. The underlying circumstances remain unaddressed, and those who profit the most, legally protected within corporations, remain outside of, perhaps more appropriately, above the question.

The United States has largely framed the issue around sex trafficking, and this holds true in New York.  The structure of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Law, and the disparate penalties assigned to sex versus labor traffickers, speak to an obvious bias. Christa M. Stewart, Coordinator of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Program, points to an organized lobbying effort that wanted to curtail strict legislation against labor traffickers, both in definition and penalties. Agricultural industries were particularly invested in making sure that prosecuting labor traffickers was difficult. While the sex trafficking aspect of modern slavery is deeply troubling, it is only part of the problem and focusing the majority of resources largely on one aspect of the sex trade undermines the sense of vigor at which we as a nation and a state are addressing the issue.  Notably, for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor. Until the argument is framed accurately, and the morality of sex is removed from the discourse, big business is allowed to remain largely unaccountable in ongoing practices that profit from slavery. The demand for cheap goods, services, labor, and sex opens opportunities for the exploitation of vulnerable populations. And it is on this demand that human trafficking thrives. People are bought and sold as commoditiess within and across borders to satisfy demand from buyers. Yet buyers from street level johns to corporations making their entire profit off trade in human beings are rarely brought to justice or made to pay restitution.

As so few traffickers are brought to justice, and corporations continue to rake in huge profits generated by the use of slave labor, it is clear there is minimal risk, so the exchange rate is favorable for the conditions to persist. In the US, migrant workers are often brought in under employer specific H-2B visas, and turned into what amounts to debt-bonded laborers where their services are utilized until they become a “problem” at which time they become disposable. They may be reported to ICE as “illegals,” deported without any compensation, or transported to another work site, often in a different state. For example, after hurricane Katrina, hundreds of workers were brought in to the state under false pretenses, had their passports taken, where kept in inhuman living conditions, and never received compensation for their services. To date, there are at least nine large trafficking cases in the Gulf Coast region that involve more than 1,383 alleged victims from India, Thailand, Peru, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, the Philippines, and Panama. More than five years after the fact, cases are still pending, and it is doubtful that many of those involved will ever be brought to justice. The monetary rewards outweigh the risks by far. The economic reality is that human trafficking is driven by profits.

In revisiting the sex trafficking aspects touched on above, prostitution is illegal, and a great deal of focus has been placed on combating that issue and rightly so, yet pornography is not illegal, nor is it regulated. As noted earlier, there’s been a tremendous growth of violent pornography, which often uses victims of sex trafficking, including many underage victimize, and there has been a grossly unequal prosecution between these types of offenses.  Americans spend roughly $10 billion a year on adult entertainment and pornography is linked with some of the biggest US corporations. In fact, companies like Time Warner, Hilton, Westin, AT&T and Marriott earn tens of millions of dollars a year in distribution while the lack of regulation results in the illegal use of underage and trafficked persons. Focusing solely on street level prostitution as the largest issue relating to human trafficking, which is often times a small operation, allows big business to continue to function and generate large profits. The same crime is committed, yet in one instance it’s virtually ignored, and the other it is too often seen as the sole focus of a far-reaching, much broader problem.

Any type of trafficking in human beings is heinous, most especially of children. What can social workers do to identify, prepare and treat individuals suffering from slave trafficking? We can start by realizing the issue is larger than street level prostitution, sadly much larger. We can become informed on how to properly frame our questions so as not alienate our clients due to their fears of prison, deportation or other acts which may raise fears of retribution. We must also become informed as to what resources are available, and work in conjunction with public authorities, who in many states have human trafficking task forces, and the medical and educational communities, to identify and engage trafficking victims. We can unite and demand proper legal remedies and real social service supports. And we can provide trauma informed care. It is not enough, but we need to start somewhere.


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