The Private Sector’s Role in Human Trafficking

FORT THOMAS, Kentucky — Circumstances of poverty greatly contribute to human trafficking for both traffickers and trafficked people. Economic incentives are a driving force for traffickers, some of whom may come from circumstances of poverty themselves. Furthermore, impoverished people are more vulnerable to trafficking because they are desperate to improve their economic situations. False promises of prosperity target and lure people living in poverty. One of the most overlooked facets of the issue is the private sector’s role in human trafficking.

The Human Trafficking Industry

Research estimates the number of people in forced labor, trafficking and modern slavery to be at 21 million. Furthermore, forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year. The first step in fighting human trafficking is recognizing that it is not as far removed as it may initially seem. Traffickers often do not operate outside the bounds of society but rather exploit legitimate institutions and existing networks within it.

The Private Sector’s Role in Human Trafficking

Virtually every industry has the potential to come in contact with human trafficking, either through employing trafficked individuals or indirectly supporting trafficking operations. Trafficked individuals frequently perform legal jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, hospitality and domestic work, side-by-side with non-trafficked workers. Joint research published by the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability and the Ethical Trading Initiative found that 71% of companies believe there is “a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chains.”

Companies may inadvertently support human trafficking functions even though they are not directly employing trafficked individuals. Human traffickers require the same services as other business people, including banking, healthcare, social media, transportation and lodging. Traffickers often deposit the profits of human trafficking. Traffickers also attempt to use banks as a means of money laundering. Hotel rooms are regular sites of forced sex labor. The marketing and recruitment of trafficked individuals often occur on social media platforms.

Fortunately, the private sector’s role in human trafficking does not have to be one of unintentional support. In fact, these businesses that are most susceptible to becoming unknowingly complicit in trafficking efforts are those with the greatest potential to disrupt them.

Trafficking Policies and Legislation

In 2000, the U.N. adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. The Protocol mandates that participating countries make human trafficking a crime and outlines a framework for supporting victims and survivors. By 2008, 117 States had signed the Protocol.

That same year, the United States developed its own legislation establishing civil and criminal liability for corporations benefitting from human trafficking through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Importantly, the TVPA created extraterritorial jurisdiction over offenses committed abroad, making it a crime for any corporation with a presence in the United States to benefit financially from sexual or labor exploitation in “reckless disregard” of its occurrence.

The private sector’s active compliance is essential for governments and NGOs to effectively combat trafficking. The private sector is better positioned to identify incidents of trafficking. For this reason, the private sector’s role in human trafficking has been redefined. Now, it has become more of a watchdog and ally in the sphere of human trafficking.

Private Sector Solutions

Companies across several industries are taking action to address the risk of inadvertently supporting trafficking operations. For example, in the banking sector, financial institutions are typically required to keep tabs on customers’ transactions and file suspicious activity reports (SARs). A hotel chain might inspect multiple rooms booked under one name or a guest who only pays in cash and requests a single key for multiple guests. Social media platforms are using technology to alert them of pages, posts and users that may link to trafficking efforts. Transportation companies are training staff to identify suspicious activity and putting up prevention and awareness material in transportation hubs.

Machine learning and data analytics in the digital era help determine correlations between suspicious behavior and trafficking activity. This can be used to predict and prevent future occurrences. A bus company, for example, can look at seat maps and analyze how frequently a certain customer sits next to women who are minors. The consulting firm Booz Allen and human trafficking NGO Polaris have created an open-source data tool to help map and track organized human trafficking networks like interconnected illicit massage parlors.

The U.S. Bank learned that traffickers move victims into localities of major sporting events to take advantage of the influx of spectators. When the 2018 Super Bowl took place at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota, the bank employed its financial savvy and anti-money laundering skills to help law enforcement identify incidents of sex trafficking. The inability to afford transportation can also prevent victims from escaping a situation of trafficking. Flights, in particular, are very costly. Delta Air Lines capitalizes on its own resources to help survivors access flights through its SkyWish program.

Looking Forward

Human trafficking undermines individual and collective prosperity. Public-private partnerships are the most promising means of meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating human trafficking and child labor in all forms. Whether it be a bank choosing to offer survivors special debit card accounts or simply a clothing manufacturer with a really strong supply chain auditing system, the importance of the private sector’s role in human trafficking eradication cannot be overstated. No company is wholly immune to human trafficking. Therefore, it is both a duty and necessity that the private sector actively contributes to ending the trade of people.

Margot Seidel
Photo: Flickr

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