Supply and Demand: Human Trafficking in the Global Economy

By Kara, Siddharth | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Supply and Demand: Human Trafficking in the Global Economy


Kara, Siddharth, Harvard International Review


On New Year's Day 2011, I flew to Lagos to research human trafficking in Nigeria. Towards the end of my trip, I visited a small town called Badagry, about a two-hour drive west of Lagos. In 1502, Portuguese colonists built one of the first slave-trading posts along the coast of West Africa in this city. The non-descript, two-story building still stands today as a museum, but for more than 300 years, it was one of the most active slave-trading outposts in West Africa. Estimates are that almost 600,000 West Africans were shipped from Badagry to the Americas to be agricultural slaves. That figure represents approximately one in twenty of all slaves transported from West Africa to the Americas during the entire time of the North Atlantic Slave Trade.

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It was a haunting experience walking through the old slave-holding pens, gazing at the iron shackles, imagining the fear and terror that must have coursed through the veins of slaves as they awaited their fates. Like so many millions today, those 600,000 individuals transported from Badagry to the Americas were victims of human trafficking. In fact, all 12 to 13 million of the West African slaves transported across the Atlantic to the Americas were victims of human trafficking. While their lengthy journeys at sea are very different from the journeys of most human trafficking victims today, the purpose of those journeys remains the same: the callous exploitation of the labor of vulnerable people in order to maximize profit.

The Nature of Slavery Today

However, unlike the agricultural and domestic slaves of the past, today's victims of modern-day slave trading are exploited in countless industries, and they are vastly more profitable. Whether for commercial sex, construction, domestic work, carpet weaving, agricul ture, tea and coffee, shrimp, fish, minerals, dimensional stones, gems, or numerous other industries that I have investigated, human trafficking touches almost every sector of the globalized economy in a way it never has before. Understanding the reasons for this shift in the fundamental nature of human trafficking is vital if more effective efforts to combat it are to be deployed. The key thesis to understand is that the slave exploiter's ability to generate immense profits at almost no real risk directly catalyzed the pervasiveness of all forms of contemporary slave labor exploitation.

One point is crucial to establish from the start--slavery still exists. But what exactly is "modern slavery?" There is still considerable debate regarding the definition of terms such as "slavery," "forced labor," "bonded labor," "child labor," and "human trafficking." With "slavery," we can go as far back as the League of Nations Slavery Convention of 1926 and the International Labor Organization's Forced Labor Convention of 1930. These early definitions focused on the exercise of power attaching to a right of ownership over another human being.

Over the decades, international conventions and jurisprudence relating to slavery shifted away from targeting actual rights of ownership toward the nature of the exploitation, particularly as it involves coercion (physical or other), nominal or no compensation, and the absence of freedom of employment or movement. The term "forced labor" has generally come to replace the term "slavery," given the powerful historical and emotional connotations of the latter term. Similarly, "human trafficking" has come to replace the term "slave trade."

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It is open to debate whether these terminological substitutions are helpful, but when it comes to "human trafficking," I believe the use of this term has done considerable disservice to the tactical prioritization required to combat these crimes more effectively. Definitions of the term "human trafficking," such as that found in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the Palermo Protocol of 2000) or the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA, of the same year), have historically suffered from a greater focus on the movement connotation of the term "trafficking" rather than the exploitation involved. …

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