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What It Takes to Undermine Human Traffickers

Disrupting recruiting, payments, and demand for their products.

Key points

  • Human traffickers have very specific needs if they're to stay in business. Keeping them from meeting those needs can prevent trafficking.
  • Traffickers need a continuous supply of new recruits, they need to make money, and they need continuous demand for their product.
  • Consumer demand for cheap goods contributes to human trafficking.

Human trafficking exists because it is an immensely profitable business. Traffickers are in it for the money, and there's a lot of it. “You can read academic estimates that trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry,” says Neil Giles, CEO of the Traffik Analysis Hub in London, “but I think that’s an underestimate. I’d be surprised if it isn’t north of $300 billion.”

Human trafficking exists also because the public demands cheap food, cheap clothing, and other goods. It is a source of low-cost human labor.

Giles has an unusual approach to combating human trafficking. He focuses on two questions:

  1. What do the traffickers need to stay in business?
  2. How to demotivate them by keeping them from getting those needs met?

The answer to the first questions is, they need new recruits, they need to make money, and they need a continuous demand for their product. Any activity that keeps them from meeting any of those needs will be powerfully demotivating to the traffickers.

New Recruits

“If I’m a trafficker,” Giles begins his explanation, “One of my first needs is steady access to new recruits.” The number of new recruits involved is staggering. As Giles says, “When you add child labor to the 40 million UN figure of how many people are in modern slavery, you have 120 million in forced labor. Traffickers need to replace 20% of these people each year.”

That’s 24 million human beings each year the traffickers need to have in their pipeline. Traffickers need so many new victims because of the large turnover among the existing victims. Turnover is high because many of the current victims will be abandoned, die, or perhaps escape; a vanishingly small number of them will be rescued.

Money, Money, Money

Sex trafficking is an irresistibly profitable industry. “In some parts of the US, each woman has a quota of $2000 a day. In other parts it might be $800 a day, but still, it’s an enormous amount.”

Labor trafficking is also enormously profitable. In many cases, labor is the biggest expense when producing a product. Whether it’s mining or agriculture or fishing or manufacturing, when traffickers get their labor for free, they get a twofer. First, they’re not only making a vastly greater profit, but second, they’re also able to outbid their competitors who aren’t using forced labor.

“We’ve created a world where forced labor is too easy to do,” Giles states. “The profits coming from forced labor are enormous, and prosecutions are an anomaly.”

Continuous Demand

People want cheap food, clothing, electronics, raw materials or other products. “The desire for inexpensive products has created an unending demand for free or close-to-free labor,” says Giles.

While people are profiting from forced labor, he points out, it is so many layers deep in supply chains that it’s hard to detect. When an individual buys canned fish or visits a soccer stadium in the Middle East, or consumes a chocolate bar, there may have been forced labor involved, whether in an illegal fishing fleet, an illegal construction site, or illegal agriculture.

Even with domestic servitude, there’s continuous demand. “Demand for domestic servitude is a way bigger problem than you could ever imagine,” he states.

And this isn’t to forget sex trafficking. By some estimates, eight million people, 95% of whom are women, are forced into the illegal sex trade.

How to Thwart the Traffickers

Human trafficking exists on a daunting scale. Still, there are now new and powerful tools for combating it. The IBM Corporation, for example, has provided the anti-trafficking community with a daunting resource to help prevent traffickers from getting their business needs met. IBM is making its Watson AI system available to anti-trafficking organizations.

You may remember the IBM Watson from the show Jeopardy. In 2011, using natural language, it was able to defeat Jeopardy’s previous champions in answering complicated questions.

As Giles says, IBM has spent millions of dollars, including making available highly skilled experts, to help understand and attack trafficking at every level. Watson processes and stores 8,000 new records a week, and today we know more than ever before about how traffickers operate at every stage.

With this increased knowledge and transparency, those concerned are in a better position to interrupt the recruitment, the profits, and the demand.

Many of the pieces of information Watson can make available through Traffik Analysis Hub are survivor stories. The stories provide invaluable information about the pipelines traffickers use to recruit new victims. With the increased knowledge, resources can be spent more wisely in disrupting the traffickers’ own supply chains.

Watson also makes it increasingly possible to attack the finances of traffickers. With a hat tip to Martin Luther King, Giles says, “I have a dream that banks will have a neon sign that says ‘Don’t try to bank with us because we’ll find you.’” With its capacity for complexity, Watson can improve tracking and blocking of illegal money.

Giles also hopes that increasing transparency of the tracking operations will help people become more aware of forced labor in their supply chains and more careful about the products they consume. Increased understanding can influence the demand side as people become more aware of “wage theft” and don’t want to be complicit in encouraging such a crime.

Success in combating trafficking will not happen overnight. However, powerful tools are now being brought to bear on demotivating the traffickers. It's now possible to attack their recruitment pipelines, their profits, and the demand for their products.

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