Human trafficking

Human trafficking: what is it and why is preventing it now more important than ever?

Human trafficking, often discussed as modern-day slavery, is a massive global industry. The International Labor Organization estimates that $150 billion is generated annually through the forced labor of 21 million people–other estimates are as high as 40 million people. These numbers include both sex and labor trafficking. While sex trafficking tends to get more attention, and our focus at WC SAFE is sexual assault, labor trafficking does often involve sexual assault as a means of control. I include these numbers to emphasize that all forms of trafficking are profit-generating businesses. Further, what makes a person vulnerable to sex trafficking and labor trafficking are similar, and that is especially true as we navigate a global pandemic.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act, labor, or services through the use of force fraud or coercion. In the case of sex trafficking a minor, force, fraud, and coercion do not need to be present–any minor performing a commercial sex act is considered a trafficking victim (22USC§7102). Trafficking experiences vary greatly, as there’s no one way that trafficking happens. However, all traffickers do actively seek out and exploit vulnerable people.

Often when discussing vulnerabilities to trafficking, the focus is on the individual. There certainly are person-level elements that can make one more vulnerable, like being young or some mental health diagnoses. However, one’s circumstances and community play an even bigger role. Poverty and lack of job opportunities, childhood trauma and abuse, limited social supports and resources–these all make a person more vulnerable to traffickers and are widespread across our communities.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the circumstances around it are creating even more vulnerabilities for folks, and research suggests that disease outbreaks can increase rates of trafficking. This isn’t altogether surprising, as outbreaks are associated with a breakdown of law and order, competition for resources, and diminished economic opportunities. Further, disease outbreaks cause death, disrupting families and sometimes leaving children orphaned. As Sharron reminded us, now is the time to be looking out for those in our communities who are vulnerable. Now is the time for trafficking prevention. For more information on human trafficking visit the Polaris Project website. If you think you or someone you know is being trafficked, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” 233733.

ILO says forced labour generates annual profits of US$ 150 billion. (2014, May 20). Retrieved from

Worsnop, C. Z. (2019). The Disease Outbreak-Human Trafficking Connection: A Missed Opportunity. Health Security, 17(3), 181–192. doi: 10.1089/hs.2018.0134


Meredith is our Human Trafficking Trafficking Specialist. She earned her Masters in Social Work from the University of Michigan and has her limited license in social work to practice in Michigan. Meredith’s work is founded in critical intersectionality and focused on addressing the issues womxn face in all of their complexity and urgency.