The Economics Behind Labor and Sex Trafficking
The taking and enslavement of individuals has occurred over centuries and is a pressing issue to this day. Although slavery dates back to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the exploitation and brutality of humans increased dramatically during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Once the Portuguese colonized Brazil, they found a dependency for cheap labor – African slave labor – for their sugar plantations. Soon, the French and British colonies joined in spreading slavery into the Caribbean Islands, Central and North America. By establishing racial divisions that characterized Africans as “both inferior and a slave,” the white European masters justified taking around 12 million Africans from their homelands to work on plantations in foreign lands (Aronowitz). By the late 19th and early 20th century, a new issue of slavery emerged: the prostitution of white – particularly foreign – women in the United States, typically referred to as “white slavery.” Thus, slavery escaped the bounds of race. These women were often “obtained through deceit, force, or drugs, were coerced or tricked into prostitution” and at times, they were “forced to work in brothels” (Aronowitz). In response, the United States enacted the White Slave Traffic Act in 1910 to prevent men from forcing women into any form of prostitution, acts in relation to immorality, and human trafficking. With Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 1948, slavery was properly defined and condemned stating that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” (“Universal Declaration”).
Today, a new form of slavery exists: human trafficking. Article 3 of the United Nations Trafficking Protocol states:
“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer,
harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of
coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of
vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent
of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that nearly 20.9 million people in the world are human trafficking victims, where “more than one-third” of exploited individuals come from forced labor and the remaining two-thirds of victims come from sex trafficking (“About the Problem”). Due to the high number of sex and labor trafficked individuals, the costs for care of sex trafficking victims, the economic output of labor trafficking victims, as well as the lack of proper law enforcement and prosecution has proven to have a strenuous impact on the world. The ILO found that labor trafficking generated $51 billion and $99 billion from sex trafficking (de Cock). With $150.2 billion in illegal profits worldwide, human trafficking poses not only a physical, mental, and psychological threat to individuals, but an economic devastation to society.
Review of the Literature
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labor, commonly referred to as labor trafficking, as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (de Cock). The National Human Trafficking Hotline explicitly states that labor traffickers are able to “use violence, threats, lies, and other forms of coercion” to manipulate individuals into working against their will (“Labor Trafficking”). In 2012, the ILO estimated 14.2 million individuals around the world were being exploited for forced labor, particularly in sectors such as “agriculture, construction, domestic work, manufacturing, mining and utilities” (de Cock). According to a study conducted by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, approximately 234,000 adult victims of forced labor reside in the State of Texas alone (Busch-Armendariz). As a result, traffickers in Texas are able to “exploit approximately $600 million per year from victims of labor trafficking” (“Study Estimates”).
The United Nations Trafficking Protocol serves as an international protocol that defines the trafficking of persons. More importantly, the protocol aims to prevent, suppress, and punish human trafficking. Article 3 of the Protocol establishes sex trafficking as “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation” (“Protocol”). The National Human Trafficking Hotline further defines sex trafficking as the involuntary performance of commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, and/or coercion. Oftentimes, sex traffickers use forms of debt bondage, violence, threats, lies, false promises, or other manipulative scenarios so as to profit from the victims involved in the sex industry (“Sex Trafficking”). In 2005, the ILO divided forced labor into three subcategories, one being forced labor imposed by private agents for sexual exploitation for the purposes of “commercial sexual activity, including pornography, exacted from the victim by fraud or force” (de Cock). Another 2012 report by the ILO estimated that nearly 4.5 million people around the world are victims of forced sexual exploitation. In the State of Texas alone, nearly 79,000 minors and youths are victims of sex trafficking according to the study conducted by IDVSA at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work (Busch-Armendariz).
Human trafficking victims generally share characteristics that could be placed into separate categories: their country of origin, race, immigration status, gender, and age. A research report by Northeastern University found that the top four countries of birth for forced labor trafficking victims in the United States of America included Mexico, the Philippines, India, and Thailand. The majority of victims working in agriculture came from Latin America, particularly Mexico; however, others in the forced labor workforce had greater variance in the country of origin (Owens). The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found there to be a correlation in the race of sex trafficking victims: the majority of victims were black at 40 percent; 26 percent were identified as white; 23.9 percent were Hispanic; and 4.3 percent were Asian (Human Trafficking). The same study by Northeastern University that examined the immigration status of victims concluded that a high percentage (69 percent) of labor trafficking victims were unauthorized to be in the United States by the time they received victim services, while 28 percent of victims held nonimmigrant visas, such as a temporary work visa or special status visa (Owens). The ILO estimates that women around the world are generally underrepresented in the labor market with an employment-to-population ratio of 72.7 for males and 24.8 for females as of 2012 (de Cock). A report found that 32 percent of labor trafficking victims in the United States alone were male and 68 percent were female (Human Trafficking). The ILO found 4.5 million victims of sexual exploitation currently exist in the world; the majority composed of women at 98 percent (de Cock). The United States shares similar statistics for females. They compose the greatest number of sex trafficking victims (83.9 percent), most frequently entering the commercial sex industry at ages 12 to 14. Nearly 31.6 percent of the victims were minors (Gonzalez).
Today, Houston serves as one of largest hubs for human trafficking in the United States and is the leading city of the trafficking of persons in Texas. The U.S. Department of Justice found that the city of Houston operates over 200 brothels, with approximately two new brothels opening up each month (Boney). As the most diverse and fourth largest city in the nation, citizens are highly susceptible to the trafficking in persons around the Houston metropolitan area. Moreover, easy entryway into the city also allows for the trafficking of victims to occur as it owns two large, international airports – the George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport – and the Port of Houston, which is “the largest international port in the United States and the thirteenth busiest in the world” (Boney). However, the city of Houston has initiated a plethora of steps into eliminating human trafficking in the region. As of 2005, the Houston Task Force, a federally-funded program, has “investigated 68 cases of human trafficking and prosecuted 38 cases, resulting in 31 convictions” (“Texas Human”). Similarly, the Shared Hope International also released a field assessment on sex trafficking in the Greater Houston Metropolitan area that takes a look at the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA) (Penry). Since its founding, the HTRA has successfully been able to rescue nearly 200 victims of human trafficking, while also educating and “training over 4,000 law enforcement officers” about human trafficking, and prosecute “over 50 individuals with human trafficking related charges” (Penry). Even more so, the City of Houston passed the Executive Order: Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking in City Service Contracts and Purchasing. This executive order was primarily implemented for the purpose of informing the public and its corporate citizens, as well as to encourage contractors to not violate human trafficking laws by simply following the legal and ethical employee recruitment and labor practices (“Executive Order”).
In the State of Texas, human trafficking has become an increasingly important issue as it pertains to the modern-day enslavement of individuals. Through the use of force, fraud, and coercion, many individuals around the world are victims of sexual and labor exploitation to illegally benefit human traffickers. Despite identifying over 300,000 trafficked persons in the State of Texas, victims often go unnoticed by the public and government due to a poor understanding of the issue. Although billions of dollars are spent by the state to prevent human trafficking and provide care for victims, not enough progress has been made to eliminate what is known as modern-day slavery.
Victims of Sex Trafficking: Cost of Care
Sex trafficking is an incredibly heinous act that affects nearly 4.5 million individuals around the world. Victims are often pressured into performing acts of commercial sex with other adults or even forcing minors to engage in commercial sex acts as well. Commercial sex acts usually range from pornography, prostitution, or any other forms of sexual acts in exchange for valuable benefits, including money, drugs, shelter, or food for the held victims. Sexually exploited victims never receive any form of payment from clients. Instead, clients pay the victim’s pimp or brothel owner directly. As a result, the total profits traffickers make annually around the world are approximately $99 billion from the commercial sexual exploitation of their victims. Traffickers in developed economies, including the United States – and countries of the European Union (EU) generate up to $26.2 billion annually from sex trafficking victims, where the annual profit per victim was $80,000 (de Cock). Due to the unethical, illegal, and underground trading nature of commercial sexual exploitation, society is greatly impacted economically, leaving them at a disadvantage.
With a traumatic sexual experience comes the need for special care. Once victims are identified, many forms of treatment are made available for them, including psychological therapy, recovery, and rehabilitation. In the State of Texas, the lifetime cost for minor and youth sex trafficking victims are expected to be approximately $6.6 billion. A study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin states that Texas provides financial care for the victims’ “mental and physical health costs, burdens on the public health system, and law enforcement” (Busch-Armendariz). This includes, but is not limited to, housing and legal assistance, physical and mental health services, counseling for psychological trauma, substance abuse treatment, education, and job training. Although these forms of care are all a necessity for victims, psychological treatment is the most important aspect of rehabilitation in the path to recovery. Sex trafficking victims often develop mental disorders such as “depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other psychiatric conditions” that are only repairable through governmental assistance (Gonzalez). For true recovery to occur, victims must receive services for at least two months, generally visiting rehabilitation centers five to seven times in order to fully recover. The sad reality is that most victims fall back to victimization several times before breaking free from their situation – if they are even able to escape.
Aside from mental and psychological care, sexually exploited individuals often require professional health care due to the development of physical problems or inflicted abuse from their trafficker. As a result of engaging in unsafe and unprotected commercial sex acts with various clients, many sex trafficked victims “are at high risk of sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and unsafe abortions” and are therefore at an economic disadvantage to take care of their own health (Gonzalez). Even more so, domestic abuse from traffickers often leads victims to suffer from “genital trauma” resulting “in lacerations, tears, and injuries to the internal reproductive organs” (Williamson). In the United States, healthcare is treated as a luxury and is therefore extremely expensive for victims to recover physically. Only through government assistance are victims able to potentially find a cure for any possible diseases or improve their physical health problems. Sex trafficking presents an economic complication for the State of Texas, as well as the United States and the rest of the world, due to the heavy amount of health expenses, the cost of needed psychological and physical treatment.
Furthermore, victims of sex trafficking often become susceptible to poverty due to their previous owners or traffickers holding any profits that they once possibly made. Consequently, a generation of youth and minors is lost due to years of abuse in the sex trafficking industry (Lillie). The suffering that victims endure from severe trauma both psychologically and physically along with illness inevitably causes the generation of youth and minors to become incompetent adults. A high dependency on governmental welfare systems to survive, as well as consumption and addiction to drugs and alcohol, and possibly a lack of legal immigration status in the United States, creates a massive economic barrier for victims and society as they are not contributing, but rather taking away from the state and the country.
Labor Trafficking: Value of Economic Output
According to the ILO, labor trafficking implements tactics of force, fraud, and coercion to manipulate persons for the purpose of debt bondage, involuntary servitude, forced domestic work, forced labor of migrants in many economic sectors and work imposed in the context of slavery or vestiges of slavery. Forced labor occurs through various economic sectors, including industries such as agriculture, construction, restaurant and food services, manufacturing, retail, domestic work, mining, and herding to benefit the victims’ trafficker. In a 2014 report by the ILO, worldwide profits for construction, manufacturing, mining, and utilities were estimated to be $34 billion, $9 billion in agriculture, including forestry and fishing, and $8 billion dollars was saved annually by private households that employ domestic workers.
In the State of Texas alone, the estimated annual value of wages lost is $598,127,942 due to labor trafficking. According to a 2016 study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, there were 36,970 migrant farmworker victims that generated an estimated annual wage of $94,314,906 for their traffickers – in other words, wages that were lost for the state (Busch-Armendariz). Other economic sectors included cleaning services, with 84,100 victims generating $214,549,192 to their traffickers, 35,438 construction work victims bringing in $90,406,591, 60,925 kitchen workers in restaurants producing $155,426,986, and finally 17,024 landscaping and grounds keeping workers generating $43,430,267 (Busch-Armendariz). As indicated, victims of forced labor often have their entire wages stolen or are only given a small percentage of their earned wage back. Consequently, labor trafficking victims become exceedingly dependent on their traffickers on a survival basis. Moreover, because most victims are undocumented, many were once promised the fruitful benefits of the American dream but were instead betrayed by possibly having their “immigration documents stolen, forged, [or] withheld” and manipulated into performing involuntary, forced work (Owens).
Sadly, as companies continue to seek cheap labor, the most vulnerable groups – including the impoverished and undocumented immigrants – become highly predisposed to forced labor. As a result, a decrease in growth for the labor market in the United States and Texas further impedes economic growth at the hands of labor trafficking. The illegal use of labor trafficking not only affects the individual victims but causes the loss of domestic jobs and massive wages in the State of Texas and leaves the unemployed and the government at an economic disadvantage.
Law Enforcement and Prosecution
The United States currently holds the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) provision that mandates “victims be paid restitution, funded assistance programs for victims, and authorized ‘T’ Non-Immigrant Visas (T Visas)” – a visa that gives human trafficked individuals the possibility to remain in the country if they were trafficked into the United States (Gonzalez). However, the mandate lacks effectiveness due to poor law enforcement training, sentencing, and punishment for traffickers, as well as bleak responsiveness through prosecution. Without an informed justice system, no amount of money can help the thousands of exploited individuals across the State of Texas.
In regards to the fraudulent and coercive nature of human trafficking, law enforcement generally lacks the resources, knowledge, and adequate training to properly handle the given situation. Oftentimes, the justice system has a difficulty in distinguishing prostitutes who are voluntary commercial sex workers with sex trafficked victims. On the other hand, most labor trafficking victims never report their conditions to law enforcement as they are afraid it would “result in arrest and/or deportation” rather than an opportunity to receive help (Owens). As a result, forced labor and commercially sexual exploited individuals are treated as criminals rather than as victims. According to the U.S. Department of State, out of 40,000 identified victims worldwide in 2013, only “7,000 human trafficking cases were prosecuted for a crime” (Busch-Armendariz). With little to no data in regards to prosecution at the federal and state level, it is evident that much work is left to improve how Texas and the United States handle prosecution, sentencing, and punishment for traffickers.
Human trafficking is an odious, black market business that affects societies around the world. Through the use of force, fraud, and coercion, sex and labor traffickers are able to illegally profit by exploiting individuals into working against their will. Today, labor trafficking generates approximately $51 billion and $99 billion from sex trafficking across the globe. Although sex and labor trafficking pose a physical, mental, and psychological threat to individuals, it also affects society economically due to the extended costs to care for victims, finding suspects and victims, legislation, law enforcement training, job loss, and much more.
Many efforts, however, are being made in the State of Texas and the City of Houston to fight and prevent human trafficking. With the current mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, new provisions such as the passing of the Executive Order: Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking in City Service Contracts and Purchasing as well as the Houston Task Force have allowed for progress to be made in regards to suppressing the illegal trafficking of persons. In fact, the City of Houston is the “only municipality in the United States whose mayor has appointed a dedicated special advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking,” an incredibly important step in anti-human trafficking efforts (Turner). The city also launched an Anti-Human Trafficking Strategic Plan on May 9th of 2016 that has helped improve institutionalized responses, including that of strengthening the ordinance of massage establishments to “help law enforcement crackdown on illicit establishments” as well as instituting a municipal court diversion program that will “connect potential victims and those engaged in prostitution with civil legal service providers” (Turner).
Although there is an immense need to improve on the justice system in regards to human trafficking throughout the city, state, and country, it is important to note that there has been significant progress in the fight against human trafficking.
“About the Problem.” Human Trafficking Center, Human Trafficking Center,
Aronowitz, Alexis A. Human Trafficking: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2017.
Contemporary World Issues Series. EBSCOhost,
Boney, Jeffrey L. “Sex & Human Trafficking: A Vicious Evil In Our Own Backyard.” Houston
Forward Times, Houston Forward Times, 5 Apr. 2017,
Busch-Armendariz, N.B., Nale, N.L., Kammer-Kerwick, M., Kellison, B., Torres, M.I.M., Cook
Heffron, L., Nehme, J. (2016). Human Trafficking by the Numbers: The Initial
Benchmark of Prevalence and Economic Impact for Texas. Austin, TX: Institute on
Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, The University of Texas at Austin.
de Cock, Michaëlle, and Maame Woode. “Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced
Labour.” Human Trafficking Search, International Labour Office, 2014,
“Executive Order: Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking in City Service Contracts and
Purchasing.” Greater Houston Community Foundation, 19 Oct. 2017,
ghcf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/EO-1-56.pdf. Accessed 20 Apr. 2018.
Gonzalez Bocinski, Sarah. “The Economic Drivers and Consequences of Sex Trafficking in the
United States.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Institute for Women’s Policy
Research, Sept. 2017,
Human Trafficking. National Center for Victims of Crime, 2013, Human Trafficking,
“Labor Trafficking.” National Human Trafficking Hotline, Polaris,
Lillie, Michelle. “The Dirty Economics of Human Trafficking.” Human Trafficking Search,
Human Trafficking Search, 22 Aug. 2017, humantraffickingsearch.org/the-dirty-economics-of-human-trafficking/.
Owens, Colleen, et al. “Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of
Labor Trafficking in the United States.” Urban Institute, Urban Institute, Oct. 2014,
Penry, Kendra. “Rapid Field Assessment of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking In Harris and
Galveston Counties, Texas.” Shared Hope International, Houston Rescue and Restore
Coalition, Aug. 2011,
“Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and
Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. United Nations. 5 Nov. 2010. https://www.osce.org/odihr/19223?download=true.
“Sex Trafficking.” National Human Trafficking Hotline, Polaris,
“Study Estimates More Than 300,000 Victims of Human Trafficking in Texas.” UT News, The
University of Texas at Austin, 24 Jan. 2017,
“Texas Human Trafficking Fact Sheet.” Center for Public Policy, Jan. 2013,
Turner, Sylvester. “1 Year Progress Report.” Human Trafficking Houston, Houston Area Council
on Human Trafficking, 17 Apr. 2017, humantraffickinghouston.org/year-end-report/.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations. 10 Dec. 1948.
Williamson, Erin. “Human Trafficking.” National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence,
Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center, 2009,