Underlying Economic Forces
“They know their business inside out and respond to changes in the market with a speed unmatched by even the most competitive corporations. Their expertise and ability to exploit the market are surpassed only by their disregard for human life. Women are bought, sold and hired out like any other product. The bottom line is profit.”
~ Anna Diamantopoulou, European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs
If we hope to abolish modern-day slavery, it is important to consider its root causes:
- A culture that accepts treating women as objects that can be bought and sold.
- The ready market for cheap labor and cheap goods.
- Poverty and desperation which maintain a pool of vulnerable victims.
This view dictates that human trafficking be seen in the full context of economic globalization. It makes clear that human trafficking cannot be examined in isolation from many other social justice issues which impact it. Most notable among these are poverty, educational opportunity, access to health care, gender discrimination, racial equality and even issues of environmental justice. That is certainly not to say that these other issues must be resolved beforehand. But it means that in looking at underlying causes, we must remove any blinders in order see clearly the economic forces that govern this criminal industry. Oftentimes we may need to look in the mirror!
The connection between human trafficking and poverty is perhaps obvious, as a large pool of desperate people will naturally be at risk for serving as a ready supply of cheap labor. The connection to gender inequality is also self-evident if we consider that a culture which devalues women is more likely to accept their being seen as commodities. But the connection to the environment, while not quite so apparent, is very real. Consider these examples:
- Climate change and rising sea levels are predicted to continue the trend toward more frequent extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts. These catastrophic events result in destruction, impoverishment, and dislocation for people worldwide. The economic and civil disruption that ensues is major source for trafficking victims.
- The deforestation of the Amazon region is driven in some measure by the need for fuel to stoke the smelters that render pig iron from ore. These illegal operations depend on slave labor deep in the jungles of Brazil. But we get cheaper steel for our automobiles.
- Commercial overfishing by mechanized fleets has left untold thousands of Indonesian islanders without a source of income, leaving them at the mercy of human traffickers. In a bitterly ironic twist, many children in this region are trafficked into the most inhumane conditions imaginable, processing the seafood that was once abundantly available to them and their families, but is now only available for export. But we get cheaper seafood.
- Mountaintop removal for coal extraction in Appalachia devastates the land leaving it scarred, poisoned, and barren. While the coal companies simply move on, they leave in their wake communities crippled, bleeding, and ripe for exploitation by traffickers. But we get cheaper electricity to power our plasma TV’s.
We can see a common thread emerge: the relentless search for cheaper goods and services fueling the abuse of both human beings and the environment. Ironically luxury goods are also prone to this race to the bottom. Gold is mined by children using primitive tools. Diamonds are mined by slaves to fund civil wars. Precious tropical hardwoods like teak and mahogany are logged illegally by criminal gangs using slave labor. From simple trinkets and handcrafts, to the most expensive baubles of the rich, slavery has crept into many products and categories you might not have suspected.
Viewing this crime from a business perspective requires that we consider the relationship of supply and demand to the driving force of profit. While many previously mentioned views may be valid and useful, they each have limitations. No matter how many victims are rescued, there will always be a steady new supply at the ready. No matter how many criminals are prosecuted, there will always be other opportunists willing to step into their shoes. So long as the supply, demand, and profit remain unchanged, modern-day slavery will continue to flourish. In order to break the chains, we must fundamentally alter this equation.
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