Trafficking in humans

Brett O’Neill SJ 19 May 2021

Over the past two decades the fight against human trafficking has become a popular global cause. 

Human trafficking can take place in many hidden and subtle forms across the globe and within our own communities. Over the past two decades the fight against human trafficking has become a popular global cause. The cause taps into our intuition that economic life should serve people, not come at their expense.

In 1889, a young woman was freed from slavery in Venice, Italy. She had been abducted 12 years earlier in Sudan and then sold over several occasions. She was repeatedly forced to perform domestic work and eventually brought to Italy by a diplomatic family. There, under the care of the Canossian sisters, she fought for her freedom and later entered the convent. With this background, St Josephine Bakhita makes an appropriate patron saint for survivors of human trafficking.

‘Human trafficking’ is the crime of coercing people, through force, deception, or the abuse of power, in order to exploit them (mostly for work). In the popular imagination, we sometimes think of trafficking in fairly narrow terms, along the lines of Hollywood films, such as Taken. We may associate it mainly with sex work or migrant workers moving unlawfully across borders, given these cases attract the most attention. However, this crime can occur whenever a person is forced into work, regardless of how or where.

In Australia, cases have been identified in restaurants, brothels, domestic work, on farms, as well as in our foreign supply chains. Migrants without visas or permission to work are especially vulnerable to trafficking, as they can be pressured by the constant threat of detention and removal. Without knowing it, we might purchase clothes or items in our local supermarket that rely on forced labour.

Numerous organisations are now dedicated to eradicating ‘modern slavery,’ an evocative (though imprecise) alternative term. Pope Francis himself has made human trafficking one of his key priorities, describing it a ‘source of shame for humanity’ (Fratelli Tutti, 189) and calling out our ‘global indifference’ to this problem. Unfortunately, human trafficking is a very broad and complex phenomenon that’s well-embedded in our global economy and difficult to address.

As Catholics, we are opposed to human trafficking not only because it is exploitative, but because it is the antithesis of dignified work. Human beings are not just good for work; first of all, work should be good for human beings.

A number of Catholic agencies, particularly networks of religious women, have made admirable and courageous efforts to highlight this issue. Talitha Kum is an international network of religious women that coordinates to help prevent trafficking and work to identify, protect, and rehabilitate its victims. In Australia, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) continues this work locally, drawing attention to the reality of human trafficking within our communities and supply chains.

It is easy to see why we should oppose human trafficking. However, there are no easy answers for it. It is hard to identify or even measure instances of human trafficking, let alone eradicate it.

For many people, trafficking may seem one of only a few pathways to a relatively better life. We can’t stop only at ‘rescuing’ people from trafficking, if there are no better alternatives and consumer demand for exploited labour remains. Without broader social change, ‘rescued’ survivors would have to return to the very same conditions that enabled their exploitation. Other people may inevitably take their place.

Instead, we need to build a more humane economy, one that fosters dignified work, makes employers accountable, and in which people are not so vulnerable to exploitation.

Yet, with a task of such massive scale, how can anyone make any real and effective change?

For a start, we can all work to better educate ourselves about the conditions of those who work for our benefit. We can bother to care about the many other human participants in our global marketplace and whether the products we buy or the services we enjoy depend on coerced or dehumanising labour. We can think more about our market choices as moral choices, so that we don’t disregard the human cost of our consumer demand for lower prices.

Together, we can make it our work to enhance the dignity of others’ work.  

> Brett O’Neill is an Australian Jesuit scholastic studying at Boston College, focusing on social ethics.