Labor and Sex Trafficking: Unequally Prioritized

By Rachel Buchan

Human Rights First Blog

On July 12, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations Subcommittee held hearings to review the 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report with Department of State Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Susan Coppedge.

The TIP report ranks countries based on their efforts to combat human trafficking, and the 2016 report showed progressive trends globally in prosecutions, convictions, and victims identified. Though such progress is significant, both committees correctly pointed out concerns over the significant gap in labor trafficking cases handled.

Globally, labor trafficking convictions accounted for 7 percent of 6,609 total human trafficking cases in 2015, while victims of forced labor make up 68 percent of the estimated 20.9 million human trafficking victims worldwide. The number of convictions pales in comparison to the scale of the crime.

In Cuba, forced labor is neither criminalized nor acknowledged by the state. Yet the 2016 TIP report did not downgrade Cuba’s ranking, a decision that astonished members of both the SFRC and HFAC. When scrutinized for the grade, Ambassador Coppedge pointed primarily to Cuba’s efforts in sex trafficking.

While certainly commendable, allowing these efforts to carry a country’s TIP ranking ascribes disproportionate weight to sex trafficking in assessment and policy making. As Senator Menendez asserted, the TIP report’s maintenance of Cuba’s ranking sends the message that combating sex trafficking is enough to cover for labor trafficking.

To be the most effective, the TIP office must cultivate global expertise on forced labor and ensure trafficking cases are identified and prosecuted proportionally across the board. When asked how J/TIP can accomplish this aim, Ambassador Coppedge highlighted the Responsible Sourcing Tool, a website developed by the DOS for businesses to monitor their supply chains. The ambassador also pointed out the need for continued engagement with international governments, increasing the number of labor inspectors, law enforcement trainings, and prosecution, and intensifying the sentencing of forced labor cases.

As a global leader in the fight to combat trafficking, the United States must increase accountability for labor traffickers by incentivizing law enforcement and prosecutors to identify and investigate additional labor trafficking cases. The reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in Congress next year provides an opportunity to amend our landmark human trafficking law to designate at least one labor trafficking prosecutor in key districts across the United States.

The TIP report is a vital tool for government accountability and progress worldwide. As Senator Cardin said, “[it] is critical to ensuring continued progress against the scourge of human trafficking.” In order to maximize its efficacy, however, both sex and labor trafficking deserve proportional emphasis.

To learn more about Human Rights First’s approach to labor trafficking, please see our blueprint, “How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.”