Shafiq R Khan


Combating Human Trafficking in India: How the United States can Serve as Catalyst for Change

Human Trafficking Defined

The United Nations’ definition of human trafficking is “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation". Put into simpler words, human trafficking is modern-day slavery.

Through an American’s eyes this concept is more than hard to grasp. Does this really happen? Yes, sadly it does, not in just poor, undeveloped nations but all around the world. The United Nations agency named International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 12.3 million people held against their will in servitude at any given point in time. Other organizations estimate the number to be as high as 27 million. The victims of human trafficking are those who are the most vulnerable and weak, young women and children. According to U.S. Government-sponsored research activity conducted in 2006, 600,000 to 800,000 persons are trafficked across international borders annually. Disturbingly, the research also shows that 80% of trafficked persons were women and girls, and 50% of the victims were minors.

It must be understood that some human trafficking crimes cross national borders, but it would also be considered human trafficking to hold, or harbor, a person in a country against their will. It should also be known that some servants voluntarily become servants out of lack of job skills and opportunity. However, in some cases, the servants move into an environment that was not as advertised. They may become forced to stay in this environment and work for their “employers” for no wages or in inhumane conditions. This would also be considered human trafficking.

The underlying theme of human trafficking is that the “trafficker” exploits, coerces, frauds, or forces the victim against their will into servitude at the gain of the trafficker. Thus this financial gain brings in the business factor to these atrocious crimes. The United Nations estimate that an approximate five to seven billion US Dollars per year is generated globally. This number is quite large and serves as justification of why human trafficking thrives in countries that are facing poverty and social injustice.

Forms of Servitude

Now that we have a definition of human trafficking and understand the make-up of those directly affected, what form does “servitude” take? The scope may be wider than we have documented, but for the most part there are two major sectors. The victims are either subject to labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or both.

Labor exploitation, also referred to as “labor trafficking,” includes mostly men and children, but also women. The forms of labor exploitation include bonded labor, involuntary servitude, domestic servitude, and child labor. People in these situations are subject to unsafe, inhumane working conditions. The positions can be paid, but usually are unpaid. Often, the labors are beaten on a regular basis adding to their woes. In general, forced labor often occurs when employers find gaps in employment law and uses these gaps to exploit their victims. Immigrants, in particular, are very vulnerable to forced labor because of the number of laws surrounding their employment.

Let me discuss each form of labor trafficking. Bonded labor occurs when the employer uses a bond, or debt, to keep the worker in service. The worker will receive a debt or inherent a debt as part of their initial employment. The worker must stay working for the employer until the debt is paid off. The concept of “inheriting debt” has kept workers in servitude for multiple generations. Involuntary servitude exists when a worker has a perception that they cannot escape their work for fear that they may be physically beaten or be prosecuted through legal action. The common factor in these situations is that a threat is made that keeps the worker trapped. Domestic servitude is different from involuntary servitude in that the worker is working for a person or family in their home. Wealthier families may be the perpetrators in these cases. Children are most vulnerable in these situations and are held in servitude through emotional or sexual abuse. This type of labor trafficking is extremely hard to identify and track. Child labor overlaps with the first three categories. By definition, it involves a minor and it is particularly troubling that some children are sold by their own parents into a forced labor situation.

Sexual exploitation, or sex trafficking, affects almost wholly women and children. By the United Nation’s definition, “sex trafficking means the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act”. Commercial sex act means that something of value is given in exchange for the act. Commercial sex trade is a booming business, so much of the human trafficking that exists today involves such services. Many of the sexual exploitation cases involve working in street prostitution, organized brothels, strip clubs, live-sex shoes, pornography businesses, etc. Other sexual exploitation cases take the form of private homes, where the woman or child is forced to live and work with the offender. The victims of sexual exploitation are often lured in with the promise of a good job in another country in exchange for the acts, kidnapping, fraudulent marriage proposals, or even sold in to the business by family members. Child Sex Tourism, a specific type of commercial sex trade that is a fast growing problem, involves a person travelling to another country in order to engage in this act.

Human Trafficking in India: How Big is the Problem?

By its very nature, human trafficking is something that is not publicly identified, so how can quantify how much corruption is taking place? I am not sure that there is a real answer to that question. You can not measure what you can not see. We have no doubt that human trafficking takes place wherever someone sees there is a need for cheap labor, sex, and money; therefore it exists in every country in the world. Many organizations around the world have taken on extensive research projects to attempt to identify the scope of the problem, none have been completely successful. Most all of the reports have been questioned as to reliability and accuracy, as should be expected due to the reason above. With that being said, multiple reports point to India as a “source, destination, and transit country.” The huge population and location seem to be contributing factors to this statement. It is less liking that someone would be caught trafficking among the population. The number of borders India shares with its neighbors adds to the problem. China, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan all have been identified as countries with a significant amount of human trafficking. It is also arguable that many industries in India require manual labor, which is also a factor.

The Trafficking in Persons Report published by the United States’ Department of State identifies India as a country having both labor trafficking and sex trafficking issues. The number of persons trafficked is estimated to be in the millions. Again, these are very vague statistics as no organization has actually been able to quantify the problem. Looking for more data on the subject, I did find a second report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that ranks India as a country of high origin for human trafficking. This same report also ranks India as a high destination country. A high origin country means that people from India are trafficked to other countries, while a destination country would refer to people from outside India being brought into the country and harbored there. From these reports, it is safe to conclude that there is a problem in South Asia, including the country of India.

At a briefing in Washington, D. C. this past June, Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons, was quoted saying, “India has the world's largest labor trafficking problem with hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims and millions of bonded laborers including forced child laborers. In India, there is no national anti-trafficking effort, no recognition of bonded labor on an official level, and poor efforts against sex trafficking. The world's largest democracy has the world's largest problem of human trafficking.” This briefing took place at the release of the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report.

While Lagon is certainly qualified to have an opinion on India’s trafficking problem, I believe his statement is in conflict with the Trafficking in Persons Report published by the State Department. In that report, India is on the “Tier 2 Watch List”, while the worst of countries are on the Tier 3 List. If indeed India does of the world’s largest labor trafficking problem, then it should have been included on the Tier 3 List along with the other 16 countries on that list. Nonetheless, I do feel confident that India does have a significant problem to be placed on the Tier 2 Watch List.

The Trafficking Victim Protection Act of 2000 is the U.S. law that was created to attempt to combat human trafficking. It lays out the criteria for which “list” a country will be placed on. A country on the Tier 2 Watch List, also known as the “Special Watch List,” is a country where the number of victims of this crime is significant or is significantly increasing, the government of the country has not produced concrete evidence to demonstrate their combat towards the severe forms of trafficking over the prior year, and the country is making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards. India has been on this list for four consecutive years, including 2007. The specific reason given for this is that the Indian government has not recognized the country’s huge bonded labor population. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimate that between 20 million to 65 million bonded laborers are held in India. Another reason is that the government has not take action to prosecute or punish three government officials that were found to be involved in trafficking-related corruption.

Efforts India has Made to Combat Human Trafficking

In September 2006, the Indian government responded to the trafficking issue by creating a central anti-trafficking law enforcement “nodal cell.” The nodal cell is a federal two-person department responsible for collecting and performing analysis of data related to trafficking, identifying the causes of the problem, monitoring action taken by state governments, and holding meetings with state-level law enforcement. In 2007, three state governments established anti-trafficking police units, the first of this kind in the India. In October 2006, the central government passed a law banning the employment of children in domestic work. In July 2006, the Maharashtra government was given authority by the Supreme Court to seal brothels. The government already has laws in place to prohibit bonded and forced labor, set in place by the Bonded Labor Abolition Act, the Juvenile Justice Act, and the Child Labor Act.

Despite the legal efforts that are taking place, enforcement of the law leaves room for desire. In 2006, for the entire country of India, only 27 convictions for trafficking offenses were reported. From October 2006 to December 2006, 1672 child labor violations were reported, but no one was criminally prosecuted. Also in 2006, 685 suspected sex traffickers were attained, but no convictions were reported. Two specific examples given in the Trafficking in Persons report pertain to rescue missions. In New Delhi, 234 children were rescued by police from embroidery factories and rice mills. The owners of these businesses did not receive punishment. Forty-three government-run rescue missions freed 275 victims of commercial sex trafficking, however the government did not report any convictions on those accounts as well.

NGOs and human rights activists are left to fill the void of the government’s negligence. Without a significant amount of funds, how much of an impact can NGOs have? On individual lives their impacts are huge, but when you look at society as a whole the crisis is too big, the Indian government must step up and address this issue.

Potential Effects on the Economy

If the government does not address the human trafficking problem in a more effective manner, the impact on India’s economy will be tragic. Being on the Tier 2 Watch List should serve as a warning to India if they value their relationship with the United States. Countries that are downgraded to the Tier 3 List face potential sanctions from the United States government. In addition as stated in the Trafficking in Persons report, “governments subject to sanctions would also face U.S. opposition to assistance from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”

Recommendations for Change

The United States has taken a hard stance on human trafficking. The U.S. government does not see human trafficking as a problem related to any certain country, but rather has a global issue that must be resolved. “We must eliminate modern-day slavery” is the mindset administration has taken. Countries struggling with the issue, like India, should take advantage of the help the United States is willing to extend. The United Nations also has taken a similar stance, showing that humanitarian aid is available; it is solely a matter of showing that the Indian government is making a serious effort to address the issue. I recognize the fact that the Indian government must be overwhelmed with issues that need attention, but in my opinion few are more important than protecting your own people.

Outside of government intervention, there are other actions that can help. NGOs must not give up the fight. People like Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist against child labor whom has set free over 75,000 bonded and laborer children, must passionately continue in their missions. People in the education field can teach ethics training in Indian Business Schools that may prevent future business owners from pursuing “cheap forms of labor.” Multi-national enterprises that enter the Indian economy can lead by example. They can refuse to do business with companies that knowingly engage in the inhumane practices of employing bonded laborers.

Indians and Americans both live in democratic societies that value freedom, we must work together to ensure that all of our citizens can enjoy freedom and that each person’s human rights are respected.


1. US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2007

2. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific website:

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

4. United Nations Office of Drug and Crime Trafficking in Persons: Global Patterns Report, April 2006

Next PostNewer Post Previous PostOlder Post Home