Globalization and Human Trafficking

By Jones, Loring; Engstrom, David W. et al. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Globalization and Human Trafficking

Jones, Loring, Engstrom, David W., Hilliard, Tricia, Diaz, Mariel, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Globalization demands that social workers embrace more than just local and national perspectives; they must adopt an international viewpoint as well. A negative aspect of globalization that deserves more attention is the international movement of labor. This paper presents a description and analysis of trafficking, the more deleterious part of this movement of people, in a global context. Decision makers seeking to make global migration more humane need to know about the dynamics and process of trafficking, as well as ways to combat it. Definitional controversies, contextual issues (including the dynamics and processes of trafficking), and consequences of this movement for individuals and societies are discussed. Implications for social work are also presented.

Keywords: human trafficking, global migration, labor exploitation, international labor movement


Globalization has resulted in an unprecedented flow of capital, goods and services, and labor into every continent and nearly every country in the world. Although much has been written on capital flows and emerging markets (Friedman, 2000), not as much attention has been given to the tremendous flow of people seeking work outside of their home countries. Indeed, in 2006 the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were more than 191 million immigrants worldwide (IOM, 2006). Immigrants are frequently treated as outsiders in their host countries and not afforded the same protection and rights as citizens (Engstrom, 2006; Aleinikoff & Klusmeyer, 2002). In part because of their outsider status, immigrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and other harms, and nowhere is this more apparent than in human trafficking, a violation of basic human rights that is aptly viewed as a modern form of slavery. Human trafficking represents perhaps the worst form of labor exploitation and can be regarded as one of the dark sides of globalization.

Trafficking supplies human beings for prostitution, sweatshop labor, street begging, domestic work, marriage, adoption, agricultural work, construction, armed conflicts (child soldiers), and other forms of exploitive labor or services. Estimating with any accuracy the number of victims of human trafficking is a daunting task, so much so that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that such a "statistical goal may prove to be unachievable" (UNODC, 2006, p. 45). Methodological problems have not, however, prevented organizations and scholars from offering widely ranging estimates. For example, a 2005 report by the International Labor Organization said that there were approximately 12,300,000 victims in forced labor in the world (ILO, 2005), while Bales (2005) offered an estimate of 27 million. There is general agreement that the majority of persons trafficked are female, perhaps nearly 80 percent (UNODC, 2006).

Labor exploitation of trafficked persons is hugely profitable. One estimate places the global profits at approximately $32 billion annually (Feingold, 2005). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS) described trafficking as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world (2004). Among illegal enterprises, trafficking is second only to drug dealing, and tied with the illegal arms industry, in its ability to generate dollars.

Human trafficking is both a global problem and a domestic problem. The United States is a major receiver of trafficked persons: It is estimated that 15,000 to 50,000 of internationally trafficked victims arrive in the United States each year (United States Department of State [US DOS], 2005; US DHHS, 2004; UNODC, 2006). Trafficked victims can be found in various sectors of the U.S. economy, including prostitution, sweatshops, factories, and service industry work (US DHHS, 2004). These data demonstrate the scope of the problem. Human trafficking is a highly underreported crime and victims can be extremely difficult to identify (Hopper, 2004).

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