The commodification of humans: Modern day slavery

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The commodification of people in the global economy

The economic discourse of trafficking has its foundations in the assumptions that economic factors are the root problem and these motivate the supply and demand of trafficking. Trafficking is often is motivated by profit maximisation with an estimated global wealth of $32 billion (Brewster et al. 2014, Shelley 2014, Gallagher 2001, Salt 2000).[2] This perspective was reflected in EUROPOL’s 2003 assessment of trafficking asserting that trafficking prospers because it “remains a low-risk-high-reward enterprise for organised crime”. The profits are generated by the economic exploitation of victims within the clandestine trafficking chain. If trafficking profits are larger than the costs of the enterprise human trafficking will continue. This view is supported by Georgis and Lugosi (2014) who argue that the financial benefits of sex trafficking outweigh the minimal legal consequences. For sex traffickers, humans are re-usable and profitable compared to other illegal operations such as drug trafficking.

The supply aspect of understanding the trafficking in human beings is often connected to poverty. Miller (2006) argues that vulnerable and desperate populations in developed countries are acceptable to the deceptive claims of a better life promised by traffickers. However, much of the claim that poverty in developing countries encourages the supply of trafficked victims is not based on concrete evidence. The World Bank (2016) reported that in Africa (a source continent) showed the decrease in poverty. Thus, the connection between poverty and trafficking is unknowledgeable. It is then evident that the assumed root problems of the supply of trafficked victims are flawed and further hinders the possibility of combating human trafficking. As without sourcing the root problems, effective solutions cannot be given.

To understand human trafficking, the demand aspect of the phenomena is also a key component in evaluating the possibility of combatting trafficking. Demand, as defined by Pearson (2005), is the desire or preference of people for specific services or goods. Therefore, incorporating this definition the demand aspect of trafficking can be indirectly linked to customers. Danailova-Trainor and Belser (2006) argued that the demand was based on the price customers were willing to pay for sex services or serviced goods from labour trafficked victims. In this case combating human trafficking is impossible, as customers cannot differentiate between the services of trafficked victims and the services of non-trafficked victims. Thus, there is no separate demand for services but only one demand, the demand by the customer (Ibid: 4). Similarly, Bales (2012:3) commenting on human trafficking in the labour discourse

The economic discourse can be linked to another popular and widely used perspective for analysing human trafficking the human rights discourse of modern day slavery or forced labour (ILO 2005, Bales 2012). Bravo (2007) argued that the commodification of people as property and being deemed suitable for abuse is part of human existence declaring that slavery was not eliminated by the 19th-century abolition of slavery. In the same vein, Satre (2005) argued that the end of the slave trade only forced employers to look elsewhere for labour. Therefore, it can be argued that human trafficking is the continuation of slavery and that the prospects of combating trafficking are impossible as traffickers will also look elsewhere for forced labour, sex work, child trafficking or organ trafficking.

Moreover, Bruckert and Parent (2002) argue that trafficking is both business (economic) and criminal activity formed by transnational organised groups. Evidence for this claim is only estimated and not factual thus Feingold (2005) rejects the assumptions that human trafficking is a business controlled by organised crime. For Feingold (2005), small groups and individuals in a network control trafficking. Likewise, Aronowitz (2001) argues that often there is no observable transaction within human trafficking for it to be analysed as an organised criminal business. Aronowitz (2001) emphasises that exploiters are all part of the same network involving various individuals including corrupt public officials, debt collectors, investors, transporters and money launders.

The criminal perspective to human trafficking especially on trafficking in women is notable in literature and within the legislation. The legalisation of prostitution is often regarded as being able to discourage trafficking (Feingold 2005). Thailand for example, many are in support of extending labour and social security laws to sex workers as this may allow the inspection of sex establishments and in turn exposing sex trafficking and underage prostitution (Feingold 2005). However, Danailova-Trainor and Belser (2006) identified that demand of human trafficking was higher in countries open to globalisation and have a higher incidence of prostitution (independent from legalised prostitution countries). More recent studies have shown that this is also the case for countries with legalised prostitution as there was statistical evidence revealing a larger incidence of human trafficking (Cho, Dreher and Neumayer 2013). Similarly, the US State Department have maintained that the legalisation of prostitution increases the demand for sex trafficking (US Dep 2006) Together, the above points indicate that efforts to combat sex trafficking through the legalisation of prostitution do not combat trafficking.

Overall, these scholars indicate that trafficking in human beings cannot be combatted due to the demand of human trafficking and the continuation of humans being regarded as commodities that are profitable to traffickers. This piece has described the issues of demand in human trafficking focusing on sex and labour trafficking within the economic discourse. It reveals that globalisation has broadened the scope of the commodification of humans. The issue of demand evidently continues to drive trafficking, thus any efforts to combat trafficking are hindered if the issue of demand is not recognised and dealt with first. Quoting Savona (2008), “we know almost nothing about demand”. Further, this piece acknowledges the arguments by Satre (2005) and Bravo (2007) that slavery or the commodification of people is natural in human nature and will only continue possibly in a different form.


[2] Feingold (2005) rejects this estimate and argues that trafficking’s value since its re-emergence into the global world is unknown. Estimates made by several organisations do not provide precise values; different estimates were given per institution for example in 2005 the UNODC estimated a value of $7 billion per year while the UNCF estimated $10million.


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