Three out of every 1,000 people in the world are held in slavery. They are the victims of human trafficking, at once one of the world's most high-profile and under-reported crimes.
Over the weekend authorities announced deaths of nine people who were found, along with approximately 30 others, locked in a truck outside of a San Antonio Walmart (WMT) . According to law enforcement all were victims of a human smuggling ring with suspected links to labor trafficking.
These victims are the tip of a very large iceberg. Human trafficking is not a problem for the developing world or a niche issue. It is real and it affects hundreds of thousands of people right here in the United States.
Putting a number on human trafficking victims has always challenged advocacy groups and authorities alike, in part because lawmakers struggle to define trafficking with legal precision. Variously, depending on the jurisdiction, laws can exclude prostitution, require physical coercion, implicate the victim in crimes and more. The constantly shifting legal terrain makes it difficult to measure the scope of victims.
However even by a fairly narrow definition the International Labor Organization estimates that there are more than 20.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world. Pinning down the scope of that problem in the United States gets harder still… According to ILO best estimates, more than 1.5 million of those victims are in "developed economies," and several hundred thousand in the United States.
Most of them, roughly seven in ten, are used for forced labor.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to studying both scope and impact of human trafficking is how often those studies overlook labor trafficking. Although over the past several decades countries like the United States have made sex trafficking a more important issue, increasing both reporting and prosecutions, labor trafficking remains a crime both out of sight and ill-defined.
According to the best estimates of organizations like Polaris and the International Labor Organization, hundreds of thousands of victims work in forced labor in the U.S.A. Recruiters use violence, lies, debt bondage and threats to keep their workers in line, often doing business publicly in industries like factories, domestic work, restaurants and even retail service.
Yet victims remain hard to identify. In part this is because, while recruiters work in the open the laborers often work hidden from law enforcement. However just as importantly, it is because the law remains unclear when it comes to labor trafficking. Police in America, the State Department found in its landmark trafficking study, often don't know or understand their authority over forced labor cases, and they often don't even know how to identify a victim. Some nations, like Thailand, don't even consider it human trafficking unless sex is involved.
But labor trafficking rings, the same kind that authorities suspect the San Antonio truck driver may belong to, do enormous business.