By Brian Saady
Marc P. Lagon directed the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department from 2007 to 2009. During a recent meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations titled, “The Reality of Modern Slavery,” Lagon acknowledged some sobering truths about the issue of human trafficking.
Debate on this topic inevitably leads to discussions about the sex industry. However, Lagon cautioned against focusing entirely on sex trafficking because it is far less pervasive than human trafficking involving legal professions, i.e labor trafficking.
Lagon noted that the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S. and EU was generally formed by “religious and feminist activists” with an “image of women flowing out of the former Soviet Union into sex trafficking.” He added:
There’s much more labor-related trafficking than sex trafficking in the world. They are both important, but you must not talk only about sex trafficking. And that for labor trafficking, it is not only undocumented or irregular migrants, but sometimes guest workers with papers in debt bondage, and that the impunity rates, the lack of punishment, is much higher in the area of labor trafficking. Basic facts.
Obviously, human trafficking is a contentious issue and there are no exact statistics. However, the International Labour Organization estimates that sex trafficking victims comprise 19% of all human trafficking victims throughout the world. That’s obviously a disproportionate percentage considering the numerous industries throughout the world. Then again, there’s a disproportionate level of attention focused on sex trafficking, as opposed to labor trafficking.
With that in mind, the moderator of this discussion, Kira Kay (Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University), raised the question of why this is happening. “The number of prosecutions are so much higher (for sex trafficking),” said Kira Kay.
She’s certainly correct. From 2001 to 2005, roughly one out of four federal human trafficking prosecutions focused on sex trafficking. However, those figures were reversed within a few years. Eighty-two percent of federal human trafficking prosecutions from 2008 to 2010 were primarily focused on sex trafficking. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department reported last year that 439 traffickers were convicted in 2016. “Of these, 425 involved predominantly sex trafficking and 14 involved predominantly labor trafficking, although several involved both.”
In a question to Marc Lagon, Kira Kay asked, “Why is that? Is there just more political will? Is it easier to identify? Does the media drive this? I certainly know from my own journalism, you know, sex trafficking in Cambodia is an easier sell than brickmaking in Cambodia.”
Lagon agreed on all three fronts. He also added that “monied interests are tougher to beat.” Lagon alluded to examples from Brazil, and elsewhere in the world. However, he didn’t cite the monied interests in the U.S. that are guilty of this horrific crime.
This topic has received a lot of indirect media coverage lately. A recent Senate hearing revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services had lost track of 1,475 immigrant children who came to this country without their parents.
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The PBS Frontline documentary, Trafficked in America, profiled some of those children who ultimately ended up being victims of labor trafficking. These children were housed in decrepit living conditions and were threatened with the death of their parents if they refused to pay their “debts” to their traffickers.
Fortunately, the traffickers, in this case, were convicted. However, there is little to no political will to investigate potential complicity on the part of the Ohio egg-production company, Trillium Farms, which profited from this labor.
Labor trafficking is a difficult crime to investigate. The victims work in legal industries such as construction, agriculture, and domestic work, but most victims are illegal immigrants. Thus, there are few whistleblowers willing to risk being deported. Likewise, the individuals or companies that profit from this crime, or “monied interests,” are much more capable of hiring competent defense attorneys.
On the other hand, sex trafficking is low hanging fruit for career-minded bureaucrats and politicians are more than willing to throw a lot of money at this crime. Those cases are also much easier to prosecute as many activists have successfully conflated the entire sex industry with sex trafficking. Furthermore, some laws have removed the universal standards of human trafficking, i.e force, fraud, or coercion. That includes the most recent federal trafficking legislation, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA).
Meanwhile, the average American has never heard about human trafficking involving the military. Nonetheless, it occurs at a fairly high frequency. The Department of Defense reported in 2016 that it conducted 13 human trafficking investigations involving military personnel.
What’s much more common is human trafficking involving private defense contractors. In many cases, defense companies have subcontracted with human trafficking organizations posed as legitimate outsourcing companies.
Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR), a former subsidiary of Halliburton, has been involved in multiple cases of human trafficking. In one example, the company used a subcontractor that lured a group of men from Nepal with promises of certain wages at a Jordanian luxury hotel. Instead, their passports were confiscated before being trafficked into an Iraqi war zone where all but one of the men were murdered by insurgents. The lone survivor was forced to work at an army base in Iraq. Regardless, KBR has continued receiving generous government contracts.
A major Pentagon contractor, ManTech, is facing a civil lawsuit for allegedly violating the False Claims Act, i.e. defrauding the government. (ManTech has previously violated this law, yet it, and several other contractors that guilty of the same crime, has continued receiving lucrative contracts.)
The current case against ManTech alleges that the company committed fraud involving a contract worth over $2 billion. The lawsuit also alleges that the company forced some of its workers into human trafficking work conditions. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that this company will be held accountable if the allegations are true.
The worst-case scenario for these, and many other corporate criminals, is a deferred prosecution agreement from the DOJ in which these companies pay a fine and promise to no longer engage in such activity.
We’ll continue to see this dynamic in place until the U.S. government exhibits the fortitude to punish companies that are guilty of this crime. For a government that claims to have a “zero tolerance policy” for human trafficking it sure has a soft spot for labor trafficking, particularly when it involves companies within the military industrial complex.
Brian Saady is a freelance writer whose work covers a variety of topics, such as criminal justice and corruption. He’s also the author of four books, including Decriminalized Prostitution: The Common Sense Solution. You can check out his podcast and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.