Is human trafficking a business??

As usual, Kristof´s article Striking the Brothels´ Bottom Line, has been controversial and noticed.  I have received several emails and many facebook comments making sure that I had seen the article and asking what I thought.  I do suggest that you read the article yourself… but since my stats indicate that most readers won´t click away, here are some of the important pieces:

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner.

I just returned again to Ms. Khorn’s brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust.

About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn’s brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it’s doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. “A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.

“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. … Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.”

Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage.

I think this article brings up such an important piece that is often left out of both discussion of human trafficking and analysis of human trafficking: this is a business. People are making money, buying and selling other people they way stockbrokers buy and sell stocks over the internet.

This point is something I have discussed at length with K, who wrote a great guest post for me way back when on trafficking in Canada.

One of my continuing critiques of Kristof’s work is that he doesn’t highlight labor trafficking.  He focuses solely on sex trafficking.  Yes, I understand that sex sells. Yes, I understand that this story is more “glamorous”.  Yes, I understand that one reporter can’t do it all. Still, so often labor trafficking gets overlooked.  However, my point is the same, labor trafficking is a business. It continues because it is profitable. 

All too often, for example in Chile, all interventions focus on preventing trafficking by raising awareness or economic development of potential victims or treating victims after the fact.  Too few organizations, interventions, laws, or initiatives directly attack the labor practices, the business model. 

The DOL is creating a list of companies that use child labor and trafficked child labor; however, I still do not know how to get my hands on this document.  When I do, I will post it!  This, I think, if widely available could be a possible way to directly affect the business model as it might make people think before buying a product thus reducing profitability.

What other ways could we directly effect profitability of business models that promote/ use trafficked persons?


  1. I agree with the need to communicate the other forms of modern slavery. If people do not SEE the slavery, they won’t recognize their role in creating the demand that makes it profitable. You may find our National Human Trafficking Awareness Day project of interest. We created a 4 minute video, The Cost of Demand, to highlight the role of supply and demand as well as suggest the breadth of services it can include. It is brief and consequently, not thorough. Some critics are not satisfied with the contents. But as you noted above, many don’t take the time to read/view an entire piece.

  2. Have you seen the movie “Taken”? I just watched it a couple weekends ago and it deals with sex trafficking…’s a seriously intense movie and I had really never given thought to these kinds of things before. I just can’t believe there are people sick enough to do this to others….I can’t even imagine how horrible it is….

  3. It’s such a sad topic. I used to think that it only happened in developing countries, but then a house down the street from where my grandparents live got busted for running a large prostitution ring and they found several undocumented immigrant women working their. They would tell them that if they left horrible things would happen to their families and they would be deported.

  4. I haven’t seen taken, but I have heard that it is really good.

    And, Sara, good point that it happens in the US. In fact, when I worked in St. Louis, I worked with victims who had been brought to rural Missouri. People don’t want to see what is in their own backyards– and if they don’t know it might be there, they don’t know to look. Over 1/3 of victims rescued in the US are done so because good Samaritans see something, realize it is wrong, and report it.

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