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Gaining perspective on labor trafficking

Do you know someone who might be working against his/her will? Or engaged in sexual slavery? Have you ever purchased goods or services that resulted from such activities?

"From 12 Years a Slave to Modern-Day Slavery: A Closer Look at Labor Exploitation and Forced Labor," a talk by Anh Nguyen on labor trafficking and forced labor.
"From 12 Years a Slave to Modern-Day Slavery: A Closer Look at Labor Exploitation and Forced Labor," a talk by Anh Nguyen on labor trafficking and forced labor.William Fietzer
Protesters against labor trafficking outside the United Nations building in New York.
Protesters against labor trafficking outside the United Nations building in New York.Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Like most Americans Minnesotans would say “No.” But if you had attended National Project Coordinator-Viet Nam Office-of the United Nations Inter-agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) and Humphrey Fellow Anh Nguyen’s presentation at the University of Minnesota Law School on April 15, 2014, you might have answered differently. Titled “From 12 Years a Slave to Modern-Day Slavery: A Closer Look at Labor Exploitation and Forced Labor,” his talk described the horrors of labor trafficking and how it differs from human trafficking in terms of numbers, visibility, recognition, and stakeholders.

Both acts engage in the recruitment, transport, and harboring of people “for the purpose of exploitation” by means of threat, force, kidnapping, deception or coercion. Labor trafficking, however, involves “work or service done involuntarily against one’s will” which differentiates it from the gender exploitation associated with organ extraction, surrogacy, forced marriage or sexual servitude subsumed by human trafficking.

Unlike those other forms, more boys and men are coerced into labor trafficking than women and girls. The International Labor Organization claims that 20.9 million people endure human servitude around the world. According to Nguyen, the $32 billion that results from human exploitation makes it the third most profitable form of illicit activity world-wide.

But some experts dispute his claims. The CNN Freedom Project estimates 20-30 million people are involved. The “24/7Wall St."says human trafficking is the world’s second most lucrative illegal activity while "Forbes" places it seventh behind cargo theft and cigarette trafficking. Ann Jordan, American University’s Director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced labor says that she, a colleague, and two reference librarians were unable to find one article “that contained any evidence to support the [original Interpol] claim” because “many people confuse smuggling and trafficking.”

The four cases Nguyen used to illustrate his point occurred in Southeast Asia. China, Myanmar, Vietnam and eight other nations have not ratified the ILO’s 1957 convention on forced labor. Malaysia and Singapore ratified, then denounced it. Nguyen asserts, however, that Vietnam businesses want their government to adopt this international legislation because there is “no way for prosecutors to work on certain cases” without these safeguards.

Jordan says such confusion “leads to bad policies.” Clarifying the source and extent of labor trafficking should not distract people from the suffering involved. What IS important is doing something about it. If labor trafficking is suspected, Nguyen advocates alerting the proper officials, spreading word about its prevalence, signing petitions like California’s which outlaw the practice, and buying only from retailers whose profits do derive from labor trafficking. Only then can Americans claim they support every human’s right to make an honest living.