By Jane Mosbacher Morris
Human trafficking is an estimated $150 billion industry, and one of the fastest-growing transnational criminal activities of the 21st century.
Trafficking may seem like a distant problem or one that doesn’t touch us personally, but we are unwittingly involved any time we buy something made by exploited labor.
Human trafficking is the word used to describe people being forced to work against their will in inhumane conditions, for little or no pay — whether in a factory in China, trash heap in India or private home in New York. It’s also used to describe those held through coercion, fraud, force or the threat of force in the sex trade or in combat.
Victims are often lured by false promises of decent work. Traffickers often take passports and money, and make threats against victims or their families if they try to escape.
As consumers, we inadvertently participate in this tragedy when we buy or use something made by these captives. While in the past, people made their own clothes or knew the seamstress who sewed them, and maybe lived down the street, today, the vast majority of clothing is manufactured outside the United States.
Computer parts, too, come from all around the world. This means we literally do not see our products being made — or the conditions in which the producers work.
Child labor trafficking in particular plagues many of the products we use today. The U.S. Department of Labor lists 148 goods made in 76 countries that are at significant risk of being made with child labor, including tobacco from Brazil and cotton from Burkina Faso.
While this sounds like a depressing aspect of globalization and an area out of our control, we can actually make a real difference in people’s lives through our behavior as consumers.
Tweaking what we buy and who we buy it from is surprisingly easy — and cost-affordable — and can have a real impact on producers here and around the world.
I first discovered the power of “conscious consumerism” in 2013, when I met former sex trafficking victims in India. These women had escaped exploitation and were now gainfully employed, doing dignified work in a sewing cooperative in Kolkata.
I was traveling with the McCain Institute, a nonprofit I’d gone to work for after nearly a decade spent focusing on anti-terrorism and global women’s issues in the U.S. Department of State.
As I’d seen again and again, women who escaped or were rescued were vulnerable to re-exploitation if they couldn’t find a good job.