Trafficking of Persons and the Law

A while back, when defining bonded labour, I promised a similar legal explanation of the crime of trafficking. This month seems as fitting a time as any: January is anti-human trafficking awareness month in the U.S., and earlier this month, trafficking was the subject of Pope Francis’s first mass of the new year. It’s on topic, too, because many bonded labourers are persons who have been trafficked for exploitation as bonded labourers. So, what is trafficking?

(A caveat: if this sounds too dry, skip to the bottom for illustrations and stories.)


The Palermo Protocol on trafficking, adopted by the United Nations in 2000, defines trafficking in person as a crime consisting of three elements: an act that sometimes but not always physically displaces a person, and a means that prevents the trafficked person from giving full and meaningful consent, all done for the purpose of exploitation.


  • the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring 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;

purpose of exploitation: 

  • Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. [note: Bonded labour, or debt bondage, is a subtype of forced labour.]

Following the Palermo Protocol, many countries revised or implemented their criminal laws to specifically target trafficking itself, adopting legislation that closely tracked the international definition. Canada (CC s. 279.01), India (IPC s. 370, as amended in 2013), and the U.S. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(9)) all undertook such amendments.


The International Labour Organisation estimates that 20.9 million people globally are victims of trafficking for forced labour, sexual exploitation, and related abuses; the majority of these–68%–are victims of forced labour trafficking. The majority (56%) are in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Africa (18%), Latin America and the Caribbean (9%).

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has attempted to quantify trafficking by calculating reports, prosecutions, and convictions for trafficking. A 2008 UNODC report found that 79% of reported trafficking cases were for sexual exploitation, while only 18% of reported cases were for labour exploitation. The UNODC suspected, however, that labour cases were particularly underreported: out of the 155 countries surveyed, only 47 reported at least 10 total convictions. Given the vast discrepancy between the estimated number of victims and convictions, trafficking is under-prosecuted, to say the least.


So how do these elements add up to trafficking in a person’s experience? A brief graphic novel (online) describes Almaz, a woman from Ethiopia trafficked to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. The story is based on a true one, and characterizes many frequent themes.

Almaz_passportThe first characters Almaz meets are from the placement agency, who have recruited her and transferred her across continents for this job posting. They confiscate her passport, an act which would be illegal in the U.S. (18 U.S.C. § 1592). Both these recruiters from the placement agency and the families that ultimately employ her or require her to work (“receipt of persons”) have committed the necessary “act” to constitute trafficking.



Labour traffickers frequently recruit victims through fraud and deception. A job described as shared domestic duties becomes one woman, cleaning and cooking alone, until 2 a.m. The promised wages that a person and a family count on are underpaid, paid late, or simply not paid. Because of this fraud and deception–or other means used–the consent of the victim to take a job or to travel is immaterial in the crime of of trafficking. The “means” of trafficking serve the ultimate purpose of obtaining a worker who could be exploited in domestic service as a forced labourer.



As the U.S. Department of State so rightly states, “Despite a term that seems to connote movement, at the heart of the phenomenon of trafficking in persons are the many forms of enslavement, not the activities involved in international transportation.” Trafficking can and does occur within countries, and within states. A person is trafficked for the purpose of exploitation–the “form[] of enslavement”–and frequently suffers additional physical or sexual abuse. These abuses are additional means–threats, or force, or coercion–as well as simply  additional criminal activity against a person with lesser defenses.


In this story, contact with family may have been forbidden or prevented. In other trafficking cases, a victim may have a mobile phone but hesitate to tell the full truth to even family. A woman who has been raped may face shame, or worse. A labourer who borrowed money or mortgaged family property, in order to pay the $10,000 or $20,000 fee for a job in the Gulf, is embarrassed and fearful to confess that the job didn’t materialize and the debt to the local loan sharks still needs to be paid.

In this story, Almaz’s ordeal ends when she is abused and attacked until she no longer has any value as a maid. She is then discarded, shipped back to the airport, to find a way back to her life in Ethiopia. She has, I think, in Saudi Arabia no alternative: her visa status would be linked to a particular employer, making it harder at every step of the way to leave abusive employment.

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