The business of human trafficking

One-time investment banker turned author and human trafficking expert, Siddharth Kara began his quick but compelling talk at Harvard’s Social Enterprise Conference with a rather obvious point: slavery and human trafficking are illegal. The fact that there are currently twenty nine million people in slavery worldwide is a clear indication of an enormous failing of our contemporary culture.

Though Kara approaches the incredibly difficult topic of human trafficking from the business and economic side of the story, he is quick to point out that “it is not intended to lose sight of the human side of these crimes.” In fact, his approach makes the urgency around abolition even more compelling, since often the personal stories evoked in the rhetoric around these atrocities are too overwhelming to comprehend.

Instead, Kara, in his presentation and in his book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, gives a comprehensive overview of human trafficking. Through charts and numbers comparing New and Old World slavery, as well as stories from interviews with thousands of people over six continents, he explains the basics of contemporary slavery. His extensive research has led to a breakdown of the supply and demand that create a direct link between consumer products and slavery. For example, the current average cost of buying a human being for slave labor is around $450, 90% less than in the Old World. With such nominal numbers of capital investment, and free labor thereafter, there is clearly a lot of profit to be made, and as he said, “Criminals are rational economic exploiters just like the rest of us.”

Though it sounds harsh to discuss human lives from the bottom line perspective, it is a way of understanding the implications from the consumer end - what it actually means when we demand lower prices and force manufacturers to seek profits in places like bonded labor. Of course it is vastly more complicated than making cheaper t-shirts and the labor it takes to make them. There is also the continued male demand for purchased sex and the ease with which women and girls are fed into that system of supplying it. To that end, the people sold into slavery, the supply side of the equation, continue to be affected by circumstances of poverty, levels of vulnerability, military conflict, and cultural biases – mostly against women and minorities, as they have been for centuries.

As Kara pointed out, the industry is little understood, the organizations set up to combat them are underfunded, and the laws against sex trafficking are anemic. In the meantime, the industry itself is getting more sophisticated. Kara, however, was also adamant that “understanding the essence and functioning of the crime is crucial if we are to design more effective abolitionist tactics.” To do just that, read his book, the first of three he is writing on the subjects of human trafficking and contemporary slavery, or wait for the movie based on his award-winning screenplay, currently in production.

Image: Michelle Mattei

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