Capital and Labor: The Physical and Psychological Trauma of Human Trafficking

Love126 Safe House

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead (Image of a safe home in the Philippines, operated by Love146, an anti-trafficking organization)

“They would not call it slavery, but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving herself names … and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.”—Frederick Douglas

Human trafficking, a.k.a contemporary slavery, is a fiscal giant in the global marketplace, generating approximately $32 billion a year. Add in the steady flow of items such as drugs, guns, and counterfeiting, and the number jumps up to over $650 billion annually. While suppliers in the drug trade are often villainized by the US media and described as Scareface-like characters, in truth, international capitalism functions just as the system so often does, with the majority of South American coca farmers make less than two percent of the profit while taking on a wealth of the risk. Or, perhaps, take a less well-known type of trafficking into consideration: the complex, highly organized, international organ exchange. In certain cases, the survivors are deceive regarding payment (including receiving none at all), whereas in others the victim may be treated in an illegitimate clinic and actually have the organ(s) removed without any knowledge of it at all, let alone consent. Whatever class of trafficking is taking place, it is certain that the profits are going to the agent/recruiter, transporter, and employer (who can be several people or just one person, depending on the complexity of the situation), and never, of course, to the person being sold into slavery.

There are many factors the have increased the quantity of people being trafficked all over the world, typically for labor and sex. Relatively inexpensive travel, the growing ease of telecommunication, and increasingly restrictive opportunities for legal migration—along with the demand for inexpensive labor—continues to feed this violent cycle. Victims, who are typically from developing nations, are told by their captures, who are mostly people from “developed” nations, that there will be a chance to turn their lives around, and engage in work that will ultimately allow them a channel for immigration. But what actually happens is a story we know too well: the victim is subjected to horrid, isolating living conditions, forced to work exceptionally low-paying, menial, and dangerous jobs, and are degraded on multitudinous fronts, including being forced into sex slavery.

UN.GIFT, an global initiative to raise awareness about and to fight human trafficking, is headed by the United Nations [UN], who work alongside a host of non-profits to promote their essential mission: to “mobilize state and non-state actors to eradicate human trafficking by reducing both the vulnerability of potential victims and the demand for exploitation in all its forms; ensuring adequate protection and support to those who fall victim; and supporting the efficient prosecution of the criminals involved, while respecting the fundamental human rights of all persons.” But they’re not the only ones doing this critical outreach, as the slave trade is deeply complicated and entrenched in our society, it truly is going to take more than a village and more than a country to demand and implement justice. Truly, it is going to take the world, writ large.

What Are The Types Of Forced Labor Trafficking?

In order to better understand the intricacies of these heinous crimes, it is important to recognize that forced labor trafficking plays out in many ways. UN.GIFT, among many more progressive organizations, such as Love146, who have offices in the US, UK, and the Philippines), have produced reports which indicate several subtypes, all with negatives outcomes for the survivors and monetary profit for “first world” criminals.

  1. Bonded Labor/Debt Bondage: According to recent reports by the UN, debt bondage is incredibly common, as its beginnings can often seem less directly violent than slavery which involves crimes such as kidnapping. This practice is akin to the type of indentured servitude which took place in the American colonies: a large portion of workers begin their employment as a means of working off a debt before “earning” their freedom—most of which never do. In “more traditional systems of bonded labor,” such as that which occurs in Southeast Asia, staggering numbers of individuals are born with “inherent debt,” thereby creating generations upon generations of slavery within families and communities.
  2. Domestic Servitude: This is nothing short of labor imprisonment. At base, people forced or coerced into domestic servitude have little to no ability to escape, and are often subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Frighteningly, it is children who are the most common target for this subtype, with the abuse most often occurring in wealthy, private homes, which enables the trade to grow, as it is largely unregulated by public authorities. The sad fact is, individuals falling victim to domestic servitude roles may essentially “disappear”—both from the outside world and from the public conscience. 
  3. Forced Labor: In most countries, children are legally permitted to engage in work classified as “light labor,” but this not at all the manner of work . These children, who are sold and traded to forced labor camps engage exceptionally hazardous word, including conscription into armed militias, are often kidnapped from their own homes, or threatened that their entire families will be killed if they do not comply with the demands of their captures.
  4. Involuntary Servitude: Isn’t all servitude essentially involuntary, I found myself asking when first coming upon this term. Of course it is. This language is used specifically when discussing incidents where enslaved individuals are made to believe escape attempts would result in significant harm, deportation, or even death. These people are often migrant workers and low-skilled laborers who are trafficked from critically impoverished countries (which were often destroyed by the same “prosperous” nation they are being transported to). The rate of physical and verbal abuse and repeated violations of employment “contracts” are emotionally devastating, and lead to an immense amount of bodily and psychological trauma.

What Are The Psychological & Physical Effects Of Human Trafficking?

sex work room

Many trafficked women used drugs and/or alcohol to disassociate themselves from the trauma of their abuse.
“I was self abusive. I hated myself and my life,” one woman recounted. “I would sleep till noon. By 3 or 4 pm, my boyfriend/pimp would get me alcohol. I would get high before I went out on the streets at around 7 to midnight.”

Human traffic is violent in every facet of its existence, which is predicated on coercion, kidnapping, rape and other forms of sexual violence, drugging, surveillance, thought control via terror, and the complete devaluation of one’s mind and body. Ideas of individualism—literally, how one perceives their worth—and safety are annihilated. Often one’s life is repeatedly threatened, as is that of their families, if the trafficked individual does not comply with orders—or even questions them, let alone resist. The great majority are absolutely kept from leaving by any means necessary. In order to reduce the chances of triggering, I will not go into detail, but accounts from victims—and suggestions for remedies to this horrific issue—are discussed at length in The Coalition Against Trafficking Women report. [Again, scenes of brutal rape are disgusted very specifically, so please be mindful of your triggers.]

It is important to note how are many factors serve to promote trafficking, particularly the sex trade, in nearly every nation across the globe (the United States included). According to research conducted by Dr. Donna Hughes (University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and Dr. Janice Raymond (University of Rhode Island) for the aforementioned report, there are many reasons this industry thrives. The most influential factors include gender-based social and economic inequality in all areas of the globe, assuring a supply of women, especially from developing and new independent states (NIS) in Eastern Europe; male demand for the sex of prostitution and related sexual entertainment; macroeconomic policies, promoted by international lending organizations that  mandate “structural adjustments” in many developing regions of the world, pushing certain countries (e.g., the Philippines) to export women for labor, making them vulnerable to trafficking; or to develop economies based on tourism (e.g., Thailand), including sex tourism; expansion of transnational sex industries and increasingly sophisticated predatory recruitment techniques and networks; globalization of capital and information technology; armed conflict, military occupation and concentration of military and militia bases in various parts of the world; and the fact that the sex trade has become a development strategy and source of income with profits in some countries amounting to 14 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

As a result, the people entrenched in this pervasive, sadistic system of control face myriad physical and psychological traumas, face extreme PTSD while engaged in this work, and even after successfully exiting the industry (if able to). The adverse physical effects most often seen include:

  • Broken bones (e.g., vertebrae, ribs, jaw, toes, fingers, and nose)
  • Bruises (e.g., black eyes)
  • Head injuries (e.g., nose bleeds, evidence of having been choked, injuries that resulted in loss of consciousness, migraines, and TMJ, and injuries requiring stitches)
  • Mouth & teeth injuries (e.g., loss of teeth, chipped teeth, throat pain, split lips, and scars)
  • Vaginal bleeding in women/traumatic injury to the genitals as one would commonly see in rape victims
  • Sexually transmitted infections (most of which were not properly treated, if at all)
  • Forced abortion, usually poorly performed
  • Pregnancy which resulted in the trafficked woman being forced to put the child into an orphanage—or
  • And many others, includes stab wounds, sprains, and scarring from knives and other weapons

The adverse psychological effects run deep—even into the next generation. Research has continually shown that many children of women who were trafficked have a great desire to murder their mother’s torturer as a means of revenge. For the individuals directly involved, the mos commonly observed psychological trauma includes:

  • Extreme sadness or Major Depression
  • Dissociation and depersonalization
  • Hopelessness
  • Continual terror/fear/feelings of complete lack of safety
  • Parasomnias, including insomnia and/or constant nightmares
  • Toxic self-shaming/-blaming and guilt
  • Loss of appetite/Eating disorder
  • Anger and rage
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Perpetual paranoia
  • Constant suicidal ideation
  • Anxiety and Panic disorder
  • Homicidal thoughts
  • Aural and visual hallucinations
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

During the study, which was largely comprised of interviews with individuals who had been trafficked, one woman summed her mental state prior to and after entrance into the sex industry. “Before I entered this business I was quite a normal person. I laughed, fell in love. And then everything was gone. I was like in lethargy, I thought I didn’t have the way out.”

For too many, these symptoms can lessen with years of professional help, but rarely do they ever return to the state they were in prior to facing such severe and ongoing abuse. The only way, then, to approach the issue, is to abolish it.

What Can Be Done To Abolish Human Trafficking?

The first step to engaging any issue, especially one as emotionally charged, deeply complicated, and largely obfuscated from public knowledge, is education and intervention. Love146, who combat child sex slavery around the globe, demand nothing less than complete abolition of illicit labor trafficking; it is their mission to train aftercare workers, create and maintain safe houses, aid in socioeconomic development programs in high-risk areas, and provide platforms for survivors to stand up and speak out. Such a detailed, compassionate, and comprehensive approach, which focuses on leadership building and empowerment for those who have been primary source victims of the trade and sex slave, is of essence in order to truly combat the deep physical, mental, and emotional trauma that leaves billions of people scarred and terrified. That is, people who have always had their voices silenced must be the ones to speak (or, if agreed, their stories relayed to others with the utmost respect and care).

Love146 offer a wealth of educational resources in order to mobilize a groundswell of support from people across the globe who wish to speak and act our against human trafficking including comprehensive overviews, lists of films, books, and academic works surrounding issues of slavery and exploitation, as well as toolkits for activists. (All of these incredibly useful resources can be found here).

While aftercare and the long-tailed work of recovery and reintegration is doubtlessly of tremendous importance, prevention is the long-term goal. As the industry is so entrenched in the international economy and mind, as previously illustrated, this is no easy or short-term task—but the abolition of violent systems never, ever was. As Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote, “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”