Posts Tagged ‘modern slavery’

In tightly organized sex trafficking groups there is more specialization and division of responsibilities than in loosely organized ones. For example local law enforcement Columbus and Toledo report that in these organized groups, “…people involved know only what they need to know to do their jobs. They do not know the traffickers names, or at least their real names, and whole operations can be run from the homes of traffickers without them ever coming into contact with the victims themselves.” (Wilson & Dalton 2007, p. 24)

In the US and throughout the world, many or most sex trafficking groups are ethnically-based (Shelly 2010b, 84). East Asian trafficking groups operating in the United States are particularly organized, in contract to domestic trafficking which consists mostly of loosely organized US-born pimps (Finnekauer 2007, Shelly 2010a). Operations are often vertically integrated, with organizations controlling operations from recruitment through to retail. For example, Chinese sex trafficking groups operating in the US “control the smuggling at all stages from recruitment…to an assignment in a brothel in order to secure long-term profits,” which are then reinvested back into legitimate businesses in East Asia. (Shelly 2010a, 124). This degree of organization makes their operations particularly effective and difficult to combat. For this reason we will focus on the operations of East Asian sex trafficking retailers operating in the United States.

East Asian groups in the United States typically operate out of different forms brothels. These typically take the form of East Asian “massage parlors,” located in many major US metropolitan areas including Washington, DC, where there are many of these businesses area (Washington Post). This contrasts with the model of domestic retailers in the US who typically utilize the ‘flying prostitute’ model.

Polaris Project (2011) reports that East Asian massage parlors are typically managed by older women (many of which are presumable former CSE victims) and owned by men. This reflects traditional East Asian social structure where women are subordinate to men. Other roles within East Asian trafficking operations include enforcers and transporters. (Polaris Project 2011).

East Asian sex retail operations outside of massage parlors are often conducted in “room salons/hostess clubs, residential brothels, karaoke bars, [and] escort services,” (Polaris Project 2011). Polaris Project Executive Director Bradley Myles believes that level of knowledge and effort required by retailers to hide behind the legal veil of legitimate business in these settings– regarding “laws, licensing, zoning, interacting with landlords and with legitimate reporting systems” – means that it would be very difficult for retailers to achieve or maintain this business model were they not part of a larger criminal enterprise (Washington Post).


An examination of institutional responses is critical to understanding the businesses of human trafficking.  There are three main types of organizations involved in the response to human trafficking.

Government Organizations

Includes national, provincial, and community law enforcement. For example in the United States this includes local & state law enforcement such as the Atlanta Police Department and Virginia State Police, as well as Federal law enforcement such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Government organizations play an important role as the state’s on-the-ground representatives and enforcers in the fight against human trafficking. However, government organizations have been widely criticized for setting weak standards of enforcement, lack of collaboration with outside agencies and jurisdictions, and  susceptibility to corrpuption.

International Governmental Organizations

Examples include the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UNGIFT) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings. In a time of rapid cross border movement of people, the role of organizations such as these in facilitating cooperation between national governments is integral in the fight against human trafficking. IGOs monitor and report human trafficking trends across national borders and encourage collaboration amongst agencies disbursed across diverse jurisdictions. However, the broader weaknesses of IGOs apply in the arena of human trafficking. IGOs have little power to enforce the policies that they impose on member states, and so the policies are only as strong as member states’ willingness and ability to enforce them.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Social Services

Such as the Polaris Project and state social service organizations. NGOs are typically are funded privately and by grants from the governments and IGOs, and state institutions are obviously taxpayer funded. There are a wide variety of these organizations and it is difficult (and often, not very helpful) to make broad generalizations about these types of organizations. Many provide victim services, and this can come in many forms. For example some maintain homes for recovering human trafficking victims, while others provide counseling services or help with financial recovery. These are obviously valuable services. But NGOs and social service institutions have been criticized on several grounds. Chief criticisms include accusations that so-called “rescue organizations” overestimate the human trafficking problem to ensure their own viability, and that they unnecessarily portray non-trafficked sex workers as victims to be pitied. Both of these are valid criticisms.

Migration and sex work expert  Laura Agustin (who, as some readers may know, recently left a brief comment on this blog), has published a scathing criticism of Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, in which she launches into a tirade against Kara that alternates between valid critiques of his work and questionable criticisms of his personal motivations.

I’ve read Inside the Business of Modern Slavery from cover to cover myself, often citing it on this very blog . But I have hesitated to cite it as  a primary source in my academic work because of its own questionable references and research methods. With these shortcomings in mind, Ms. Agustin tears into Kara with statements like: “Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates reflected in hundreds of scholarly articles and journalistic reports, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery,” and “the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions, critique his lack of methodology, or check his spin makes one wonder what Columbia University Press thought they were doing publishing it.” I agree that we should all demand much more of so-called “scholarly works” than Mr. Kara provides.

Unfortunately however, Ms. Agustin intersperses her review with reductionist theories that frame the interest of ALL men in the sex trafficking “rescue industry,” or rather all “Good Men,” (Ms. Agustin’s terms) as limited to a stereotypical desire to “prove themselves” and rescue “damsels in distress.” Citing Kara’s “exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric” as a base for these claims, she frames this as the latest in a long tradition of mens’ chivalrous attempts, which apparently include “slaying knights and giants.” More than anything, Ms. Agustin’s own anachronistic rhetoric feeds into the sexist mindset she attempts to shed light on with her piece. Must men have a “damsel in distress” complex in order to care about the horrible phenomena of sex trafficking? Do not all people, including men, have the duty to be aware of the heinous nature of sexual slavery and mitigate its damaging affects on society? Here I refer to duty not in the traditional chivalrous sense that Ms. Agustin is so critical of, but in a contemporary sense of social responsibility and caring for others who share in the human experience.

In broader terms, I appreciate Ms. Agustin’s efforts to delineate the distinction between sex slavery and prostitution. And I agree with her that Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery was not scholarly and should not have been published by the well-respected Columbia University Press. But I fail to recognize how Ms. Agustin’s reductionist theories of male interest in the abolition/rescue industry movement contribute any substantive thought to the debates taking place today over human trafficking.


Agustin, Laura.  Feb. 27 2012. “Sex trafficking: not inside the business of modern slavery.” Counterpunch. (accessed 02/29/2012).

Kara, Siddharth. 2009. Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Contrary to what many of us may think of when we try to imagine those who exploit sex slaves for profit, these individuals are most often former victims of commercial exploitation themselves. This is a common pattern, seen amongst sex retailers around the world.

For example, over two-thirds of Indian brothelowners asked about their previous occupations reported being victims of commercial sexual exploitation (NHRC 2004: 124).

In the United States, many retailers have been involved in the prostitution industry since young children; a 2010 study of Chicago-area pimps shows that 60% had family members involved in prostitution while growing up. Notably, “Over half (53%) of those with family members involved in prostitution said their mothers were prostituting and/or pimping. Others involved were uncles, sisters and cousins. Some of these family members prostituted the participants at young ages, often against their will.” (Raphael & Myers-Powell 2010: 1).

Organized crime expert Louise Shelley found that “Nigerian women trafficked to Italy replicate the exploitation to which they have been exposed. In other words, Nigerian trafficking is characterized not only by female leadership, but also by a self-reproducing organizational structure,” (Shelly Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective 2010: 91).

That may be one of the most important lessons of this research; slaves and other types of commercial sexual exploitation victims frequently end up working for the organizations and individuals that first exploited them. Thus to a great extent sexual retailing is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, cycling new individuals into the retail business (i.e., exploiter role) from the pool of exploitation victims (that the retailers helped to create in the first place!), reproducing the organizational structure in the process, as Shelly notes.


Shelley, Louise. 2010. Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Raphael, Jody and Myers-Powell, Brenda. 2010. From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex-Pimps in Chicago. Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center of DePaul University College of Law.

India National Human Rights Commission & UNIFEM. 2004. A Report on Trafficking in Women and Children in India: 2002-2003. NHRC.

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I suppose at some point we’ve all questioned the direction of our research, and that’s something I am in the process of overcoming.

To refresh your memory, my research is on the role of retailers in the sex slavery supply chain. By retailers, I am referring to the brothel-owners, pimps, and others who control the direct supply of  victims to end-users (a.k.a. consumers).

The structure of my paper is coming together well. It will walk through different stages of the supply chain before focusing on the retail stage and examining a few country-specific cases before going into a final summary and conclusion. But something seems to be missing. Never mind (for now) the trouble I am having finding data for my case studies (which I wrote about briefly in a previous post). I need to explain why my analysis actually matters; the “who cares?” question needs to be addressed.

This is what I am struggling with at the moment. What seems to make the most logical sense is to discuss the public policy implications of the analysis. After all, the greatest advantage brought by having a full picture of the sex slavery supply chain structure is that it can help “identify strategic points of intervention” (as Kara suggests in Sex trafficking: inside the business of modern slavery). On the other hand, I don’t want to distract from the business analysis that I have spent so much time on, or give the wrong impression that I actually conducted a full-fledged policy analysis. So here I stand, torn halfway between not wanting to distract readers with a public policy analysis but also making sure that my paper grows from a recitation of disparate facts and findings into a purposeful, logical argument.

In April of this year I spent two weeks in Dallas doing some work as a contractor for the US Army. We had lunch a couple of times at this little sports bar called Founder’s Grill. In the doorway at Founder’s, there is a sign posted that caught my attention. I snapped a picture with my phone:

Human trafficking warnings are publicly posted in some parts of Dallas.

What really struck me was that a former Confederate state, today home to a very diverse population (especially in Dallas), needs reminding of the ills of slavery. I thought, considering the South’s historical relationship with slavery, hadn’t these guys already learned their lesson? I mean, it’s 2011; do we really need signs to tell us that slavery is illegal and to provide a number to call in case we find a slave?

Yes. Especially in Texas, which plays a key role in North American migration patterns. A couple of hours outside of Dallas, Houston “is either the leading trafficking site in the U.S. or very near the top, along with Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York City… [It] sits at the center of major highways between Los Angeles and Miami and between the U.S. and Latin America,” according to this 2010 article in Texas Monthly. The reason that I stumbled across this sign is because I was in the middle of a major migration hub. It is also worth noting that Founder’s is located directly across the street from Dallas’ Union Station, a potential medium for moving trafficked persons.

The abundance of strip clubs in the Dallas area is also worth noting. Driving down the highway, it is impossible not to notice the billboards featuring barely dressed women advertising free food & drink ’till 5:00am, with no cover charges. If you’re from DC, land of the $8 beer and the $20 cover, this may be hard to imagine, but Dallas club owners don’t need to charge for entry or concessions because they can recoup their costs in other ways. They know that patrons will drink and buy lap dances, and in some cases possibly illicit sexual services. With the sheer abundance of cheap strip clubs in Dallas, I suspect that many are involved in illicit sex trafficking, either directly or indirectly. The volume of licit establishments also makes it easier for the illicit ones to blend in.

There was one more factor that helped me better understand why I had seen the slavery sign in Dallas. Earlier this month the anti-trafficking organization Stop the Traffik posted signs in Manchester, England as a public awareness campaign effort. Mancunians awoke one morning startled to find official-looking signage plastered on lampposts across the city that read, “WARNING: Human Traffickers Operate Here.” This progressive country that abolished slavery 204 years ago still struggles with the problem to this day. Back in Texas, a place at the crossroads of several major migration routes with lax strip club regulations and a history of standing up for slaveowner rights, similar problems are faced.

Seeing a slavery warning in a former Confederate state is sad. On a positive note, efforts are being made to call public attention to the problem and Texas has created a Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force to address it. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the sign in Dallas because slavery, like many global problems, is pervasive. It permeates borders, cultures, social status, and other factors that usually divide people. Public awareness campaigns are a necessary element in human trafficking prevention and mitigation efforts.

I’ve learned that any research on the topic of human trafficking will eventually lead to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIPS) report, since it is widely used as a resource for recent human trafficking information. At some point I plan on actually reading the report, but in the meantime I am relying on citations and interpretations by other sources.

This article by Bloomberg News about the 2011 TIPS report claims that the human trafficking situation is worsening in 11 countries. “The number of countries failing to comply with international standards to prevent human trafficking almost doubled to 23,” says Bloomberg. Presumably this means that the number has doubled over the 2010 report, but Bloomberg doesn’t specify. They also note that due to recent political uprisings in the Middle East, human trafficking figures from this region have been difficult to calculate. Examples given are Yemen and Libya, neither of which reported numbers for the 2010-2011 period. This goes to show how difficult it can be to collect accurate human trafficking numbers. There will always be political unrest somewhere in the world, and this will make collecting accurate data difficult. But areas in a state of political unrest need better reporting than other places, because civil strife is a breeding ground for human trafficking. So if a large percentage of human trafficking activity takes place in politically unstable areas, and numbers from these areas are inaccurate or unreported, then we may not be getting an accurate picture of the true global human trafficking situation.

Bloomberg also notes a statement that Secretary of State Clinton released with the report in June 2011, in which she reportedly said that there are 27 million slaves in the world today. This was actually the same number that Bales gave in Disposable People (p. 9), which was published in 1999. Kara in Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, estimated 28.4 million slaves globally (Appendix 1), based on a 2005 International Labour Organization study. For more than a decade it appears that experts have agreed on the number of slaves in the world. Though I don’t know the methodology behind the calculation of these  numbers, I find myself wondering why the number has gone unchanged for so long. We are always hearing about the growth of the human trafficking industry, so shouldn’t the overall number of slaves in the world have increased over a 10-year period? On the other hand, shouldn’t anti-trafficking efforts have reduced the number of slaves? Did each of these factors cancel each other out?

If abolition and other efforts have held the number of slaves in check since at least 1999, I would consider that a small victory in and of itself, since it would actually be falling relative to the size of the growing human population. But without accurate data from conflict zones, it will be difficult to ever gain an accurate estimate.