This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery.
The global anti-slavery movement has in recent years focused increasingly on corporate accountability for forced labor in global supply chains. There is undoubtedly much to be done, particularly by prosperous multinational corporations, to scrutinize the labor practices of their suppliers up and down the chain and abandon suppliers whose workers are not afforded core labor rights.
But there is another trend afoot that is dangerous to the cause. By focusing on corporations, advocates risk ignoring the central and indispensable role governments must play in enforcing anti-trafficking and worker protection laws and eliminating the space for traffickers and other bad actors to exploit with impunity. An incomplete approach is particularly harmful for the tens of millions of children, men, and women who are victims of trafficking and forced labor exploitation.
Corporations must clean up their supply chains, but they have no authority to release workers in captivity or apprehend and punish those responsible for it. Only sovereign governments can take on that role. If the pendulum swings too far away from government responsibility, anti-trafficking and worker protection laws will go unenforced, and today’s victims will be left behind. And if law enforcement withers, deterrence against the traffickers of tomorrow will fall just as untaxed criminal profits (currently $150 billion per year) rise. Indeed, with hundreds of millions of destitute people desperate to work, traffickers can count on it.
The Guardian recently published an editorial entitled, “So long as we blame modern slavery on criminals alone, we’ll never tackle the problem.” There is no question that modern slavery is a problem that hasn’t been successfully targeted, but “blaming criminals” is hardly the cause. According to a recent study, “despite the law enforcement focus encouraged by the [UN Palermo] protocol, impunity remains the norm: according to the State Department, only around 0.2 percent of all slavery cases worldwide lead to prosecutions annually.” Moreover, convictions have decreased in number considerably since 2003, as the graph by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, below, demonstrates:
Some in the anti-slavery movement are skeptical about the role of law enforcement because of the wholly legitimate concern that often, trafficking victims are themselves treated like criminals. Undocumented migrant victims of trafficking in many nations face imprisonment or immediate expulsion if authorities fail to identify them as trafficking victims. In some jurisdictions, service provision and even basic freedom of movement are conditional on victims’ cooperation with prosecutors. In many cases, law enforcement (including immigration officials) are themselves complicit in trafficking of vulnerable laborers, particularly undocumented migrants, turning a blind eye to traffickers in return for kickbacks.
But bad law enforcement does not justify no law enforcement. A victim-centered law enforcement approach is possible. Police forces that struggle to handle trafficking cases can become professional and dependable. Consider Cambodia, where International Justice Mission (IJM) has collaborated with law enforcement authorities to combat labor trafficking, particularly with respect to Cambodians trafficked to Thailand for the fishing industry. Today, traffickers are routinely held accountable in Cambodia’s courts, with more than thirty convictions delivered in the first three years of IJM’s partnership with the government. Cambodia and Thailand’s cooperation has led to prosecutions of international criminal networks on both sides of the border. The two countries have agreed upon Standard Operating Procedures for cross-border collaboration, and both are investing in sustainable capacity building programs for justice officials.
Another criticism of the so-called “prosecution approach” is that it “hasn’t worked.” But that is not because enforcement of anti-trafficking laws has been tried and found wanting. On the contrary, investment in the identification and release of victims and legal accountability for traffickers and those who profit from the crime has not been nearly adequate to combat this vast global crime. And donor investment in justice systems has plummeted 40 percent in the last four years.
Prosecution and justice for traffickers can work when it is resourced and supported. The effectiveness of criminal deterrence can be seen in the decrease of trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia. IJM collaborated with the government of the Philippines to identify and remove children from victimization and prosecute traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and customers. The availability of children for exploitation in the country’s three largest red-light districts (Angeles City, Manila, and Cebu) was reduced by 72 to 86 percent.
To date, we have not seen a comparable effort to combat labor trafficking, in part because bonded and forced laborers are “hard to see and harder to count,” in the words of the ILO. Hard—but not impossible. Studies in two states in southern India have found that, on average, 30 percent of agricultural, brick, construction, and textile workers are victims of bonded labor. The value of training and mentoring of local Indian authorities is noteworthy because it resulted in the release and restoration of tens of thousands of bonded laborers and a reduction of the prevalence of bonded labor to as low as 6 percent.
Law enforcement and criminal accountability for traffickers are required to reduce the global prevalence of slavery but are not sufficient alone. An integrated, comprehensive anti-slavery program should include robust government investigation and release of trafficked children, women, and men, and sustained, trauma-informed care and recovery programs for survivors, in collaboration with community-based civil society organizations. National anti-trafficking programs should also include public education, adoption of worker rights standards, and both national and multinational accountability for corporations. Unions and worker associations should be able to monitor and safely report workplace abuses, and governments and international donors should provide targeted assistance—especially job creation—in vulnerable communities. Workers, including migrants, should be able to safely and anonymously report abuses, and courts should permit online statements from survivors.
Holding corporations accountable and liable for slavery in their supply chains is timely and appropriate, but a modern anti-slavery approach must address the factor that only governments can address: prosecution. Prosecution is one of the four “P’s” that anti-trafficking policies often incorporate, in addition to protection, prevention, and partnerships. Without prosecution, however, the approach is stripped of deterrence—an essential factor for ending trafficking and forced labor. Until those who benefit financially from forced labor and forced sexual exploitation incur risk in the form of the loss of their own liberty, today’s victims will stay victims, and they will be joined by millions more.
Peter Williams serves as IJM’s principal advisor on modern slavery, setting the global counter-slavery strategy, establishing program standards and fostering collaboration between regional projects for sharing innovations and best practices.
Philip Langford serves as president of IJM United States, leading the teams responsible for IJM’s constituent, government and institutional partnerships as well as driving the core U.S. strategies and engagements that fuel IJM’s impact around the globe.