Home » Narrative » Human trafficking discourse: the value of economics

Human trafficking discourse: the value of economics

Categorizing the movement of trafficked (and exploited) persons through the language of economics has become a fashionable way to digest the complex nature of human trafficking. The prelude to almost any introduction to human trafficking generally goes like this: trafficked people come from sending or source countries, occasionally make their way through transit countries and end up in destination countries, although a specific country can be assigned more than one designation. “Supply” and “demand” are terms generally reserved for trafficked persons; so a “source” country “supplies” trafficked people, a “destination” country is where there is “demand” for the labor or services conducive to exploitation or trafficking.

A great deal of research has been devoted to investigating the specific routes a trafficked person might take and/or analyzing locations on the basis of being a point of supply or demand. As trafficking is an incredibly profitable business, it may seem logical to borrow language from the world of finance and economics; importantly this discourse has successfully influenced research and current policy development.

Clearly, knowing about where people come from and where they end up is crucial in addressing human trafficking, specifically in developing indicators and risk assessments for populations likely to be trafficked in a given source country and the conditions under which they may be trafficked to a given destination country. Activists have also used this language in a call to public action through educational initiatives and legislative changes designed to heighten public awareness and accountability. But, as the field of anti-trafficking develops, how appropriate is this framework? Why has it been so readily absorbed into anti-trafficking advocacy? And to what extent has it constrained policy decisions? Arguably, trafficking rhetoric has stalled in an oversimplified, unimaginative economic discourse; the continued use of this reductionist language potentially ignores the ongoing, flexible nature of trafficking not only as a business, but as a research framework affecting subsequent policy interventions.

The connotations underscoring this language offend prevailing notions of individual agency – trafficked persons (not to mention non-trafficked migrants and a host of others) are often exploited through a variety of circumstances and are not blindly scooped up by market forces. As others have noted,

Whether migrant or not, workers cannot be divided into two entirely separate and distinct groups – those who are trafficked involuntarily into the misery of slavery-like conditions in an illegal or unregulated economic sector, and those who voluntarily and legally work in the happy and protected world of the formal economy. Violence, confinement, coercion, deception and exploitation can and do occur within both legally regulated and irregular systems of work, and within legal and illegal systems of migration.

Economics discourse is also dehumanizing – we are talking about people, after all – and under-emphasizes the importance of State accountability to protect trafficked persons. Moreover, it tends to emphasize international over internal trafficking (often ignoring the link between them) and obscure the importance of communities affected by trafficking and trafficked persons.

The inconsistent and impractical applications of this discourse are rarely called into question. While some advocates have constructed a “take no prisoners” campaign to end demand for commercial sexual exploitation (for which we would love to see evaluation indicators), others have attempted to take a more practical approach by re-examining and/or creatively utilizing existing language to try and solve more immediate, tangible goals, such as decreasing demand for unsafe sex.

Perhaps it would make sense to apply this framework to actual business. What about corporations? While many big companies are slowly becoming educated about trafficking in their supply chains, operational challenges and incentives by corporation (including corporate alliances, partnerships and subcontracting agreements) or geographic location could be examined. Similarly, what is it about a “destination” or “transit” country that makes trafficking profitable? (Or discourages it?) What are the structural incentives within business to encourage trafficking in the supply chain? And as an illicit business, what are the opportunity costs, risks (financial and otherwise), key stakeholders that aid in and incentivize trafficking; how does a trafficking business mark success?

But in any State, with multiple industries, routes, networks, and migrant flows, how is this discourse functional? For instance, Singapore has accepted its identity as a location of demand. But demand for sex here does not relegate itself to a Singaporean-specific bubble. For instance, Singaporean men are known to frequent the Riau Islands off Indonesia on weekends to engage in prostitution; a well-documented site of trafficking. And according to a recent ECPAT report,

It is common for pimps in Singapore to contact managers/ owners of bars and brothels in locations such as Batam and Bintan to request that a certain number of girls/women (age usually specified) be brought to Singapore for waiting clients. The profits are then divided between the pimp in Singapore and the Batam manager (mami or papi).

And what if, in this scenario, “supply” did not refer to trafficked women? What if one made the case for Singapore to address the “supply” of men to the islands? Shifting the gaze from trafficked persons to those who demand (or traffick) might prove to be an interesting research exercise (with implications for a unique shift in government policy and accountability), but working within the confines of “supply” and “demand” applies a layer of assumptions about what is yet to be determined.

Speaking of which, this discourse may not suit emerging issues, such as trafficked fisherman or lack of research on points of transit. The former may undoubtedly embark/disembark at specific locations, but spend much of their time in international waters, potentially dock at multiple ports, and are carried by third party fishing company boats. And the latter, in an era of cheap mass transit, lacks definition: do trafficked persons merely fly through an airport or have a layover, requiring them to get off a plane and interact with immigration officials? Or might they be temporarily employed in the country of transfer? Are transit countries important locations for re-trafficking? Additionally, what might happen to vulnerable populations transferred between labor and sexual exploitation?

An examination of this discourse is not purely academic, the language used by researchers and advocates influences policy outcomes and funding towards anti-trafficking initiatives. Although a dearth of robust research exists about human trafficking in Singapore, as the National Action Plan is published, one wonders how the State will address assumptions inherent in this framework, particularly regarding funding for research initiatives, law enforcement interventions and prevention efforts. Without an ongoing critical examination of research and advocacy discourse, we risk becoming stagnant in assumptions about the nature human trafficking.


  1. […] the public, spread awareness and create support for the issue. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the anti-trafficking field, where language intends to evoke an emotional call to action – and […]

  2. […] As Coalition Against Trafficking in Women so helpfully illustrates through the language of commodification, sex trafficking is “mainly men who buy women for purposes of sexual exploitation”. […]

  3. […] As Coalition Against Trafficking in Women so helpfully illustrates through the language of commodification, sex trafficking is “mainly men who buy women for purposes of sexual exploitation”. […]

  4. […] Beitrag wurde ursprünglich am 5. April 2012 auf  dem Blog des  The Trafficking Research Project veröffentlicht. Originaltitel: “Human trafficking discourse: the value […]

  5. […] and thematically, exploring  a range of trafficking issues from trafficked fisherman to the language used in human trafficking discourse, touching on  the role of abolition in the trafficking debate, the dangers of misguided campaigns […]

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