Human trafficking is modern slavery, and it doesn’t just exist in history books.

Human trafficking also is big business. According to the International Labour Organization, illicit activity from forced labor generates annual profits of $150 billion. That far exceeds the combined profits of the top three Silicon Valley companies. Although it is hard to pinpoint precise numbers, international organizations estimate there are 21 million forced labor victims around the globe.

Siddharth Kara, a program director at Harvard University and author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, has researched the topic for 17 years and documented thousands of stories involving victims of trafficking. He says the buying and selling of people is more profitable than ever, because it’s easier to move people today.

In past centuries, slaves were transported in ships for months on end, Kara says, and the price of slaves reflected that cost.

But now, with the ease and speed of modern travel, the annual return on investment in a trafficking victim can be up to 500 percent for laborers and as much as 1,000 percent on victims of sex trafficking.

“This is the core crucial economic transformation in slavery… [and] why it continues to persist and permeate the global economy even though it is illegal on every square foot of planet Earth,” says Kara.

Man having his hands tied behind his back with cord (© AP Images)
Authorities in the Philippines arrest a man trafficking in children. (© AP Images)

The term trafficking can be misleading. Victims need not cross international boundaries. They can be internally trafficked within their own countries, often from rural to urban areas.

Training people to recognize human trafficking

Across the U.S., city and state governments enlist workers in specific industries to spot and report human trafficking. In Ohio, commercial truck drivers are trained to recognize telltale signs of trafficking, such as young women soliciting sex or appearing to be unwillingly under someone’s control at a commercial truck stop.

In Connecticut, state officials and the hotel industry train employees to identify and report traffickers who move victims through hotels and motels.

Houston, Texas, is implementing a strategic plan it hopes will serve as a template for other cities in the U.S. and beyond. Minal Patel Davis is the first person appointed full time to an anti-trafficking position in a mayor’s office. She aims to leverage the contact that city services — from health inspectors to procurement officials — already have with businesses and the community to identify victims of trafficking.

Health inspectors, for example, are well positioned to identify and report trafficking when they inspect restaurants, a common site of forced labor. Construction site inspectors are similarly well placed to recognize forced labor.

Davis’ office is an information hub for nonprofit anti-trafficking groups. “We want our nonprofit partners that sit on the mayor’s [anti-trafficking] task force to be very targeted in their outreach,” says Davis. “Nonprofits don’t have marketing dollars, they don’t have access to this kind of information.”

As an example, Davis described how Houston’s city planning office can use police department data to map activity associated with trafficking, places where trafficking has been disrupted before, areas where arrests for prostitution have occurred, and secondary schools with high dropout rates where students might be vulnerable to traffickers. Nonprofit partners use this data to focus their outreach and training efforts more usefully.

Davis emphasizes that trafficking is a human rights issue. “It’s also a public health issue,” she says. “You need those responses in addition to law enforcement.”

On June 27, the State Department will release the 17th annual Trafficking in Persons Report, assessing anti-trafficking efforts of various countries, including the United States.

Major forms of trafficking

Forced labor
Most victims of modern slavery are exploited for labor, whether they are trafficked (coerced or duped, then transported to be exploited) or forced into labor by their families or community. Forced labor is used in many industries, including agriculture and fishing.

Sex trafficking
Although persons trafficked for sex are estimated to make up only 5–10 percent of trafficked humans, they account for two-thirds of the profits. “Sex trafficking,” says Kara, “is the most profitable form of slavery the world has ever seen.”

Bonded labor
Here, a creditor uses debt to extract slave labor when efforts to work off a debt far exceed the value of the debt. For instance, brokers find jobs for workers and charge a fee that cannot be repaid with their meager wages.

Domestic Servitude
This occurs when a domestic worker is not free to leave his or her employment and is abused and underpaid, if paid at all.

Forced Child Labor
Although children may legally engage in certain forms of work, children can also be found in slavery or slavery-like situations. 

Recruitment of Child Soldiers
Child soldiering is the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces as combatants or other forms of labor. Some child soldiers are also sexually exploited by armed groups.