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The Future of Work: A Living Wage and Freedom for Today's Slaves

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Statues at the Slavery Monument in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo: BarryTuck/Shutterstock)

Statues at the Slavery Monument in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo: BarryTuck/Shutterstock)

The movement to increase the minimum wage—Los Angeles recently raised it to $15—will improve the lives of millions of Americans. But we have barely begun to address an alarming reality: a large population in the United States and across the globe for which a minimum wage is only a distant dream. Victims of human trafficking receive negligible or no compensation for their labor, which they are forced to perform through violence and other forms of control. This is a challenge we must take up with similar alacrity and resolve.

Katherine R. Jolluck is senior lecturer in history at Stanford University.


The term “human trafficking,” now set in U.S. and international law through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (both from 2000), masks the ugly reality of the phenomenon. It makes it too easy to equate this crime with the selling of illicit weapons or narcotics—an exchange of money for goods, outside the control of government regulators, presumably across borders. While these features do typically characterize human trafficking—people are treated as commodities and illegally traded, both across and within national borders—the essence of what we call human trafficking is much uglier and more dangerous.

What we’re really talking about is the exploitation of human beings for profit, with the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, and the denial of their basic human rights. On one side are vulnerable persons who fall victim to traffickers, from desperation, deception, or coercion. On the side of the traffickers, it’s about greed—the quest for maximum profit from the bodies and labor of others. This is true of fishing boat owners who buy children for labor; brick kiln operators holding their workers in debt bondage; diplomats and the affluent who treat their domestic help as slaves; pimps living off the bodies of duped, controlled, or underage individuals; and brokers who arrange for the transplantation of kidneys from poor to wealthier people.

Some observers argue that there are more people in bondage today than in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Others insist that the number of slaves—a term we should be honest enough to use—has declined in the last century. We can take no comfort even if the latter is true: How can we tolerate any slavery in the 21st century, more than 100 years after the battle for abolition was assumed to be won? The truth is that we don’t know how many people are enslaved today. Governments focus far less attention and fewer resources on the trade in humans than on that in illegal weapons or drugs.

It’s clear that the use of slaves, though illegal everywhere, is thriving everywhere. If we’re informed, brave, and candid enough, we can see it not just in Mauritania, Pakistan, Thailand, and Cote d’Ivoire but also in Haiti and Costa Rica, in Berlin and Rome, in San Francisco and New York. The underlying business model shows no signs of failing; without a determined effort to end human trafficking, the future for the world’s most vulnerable people looks increasingly bleak.

The problem requires multidimensional responses. They must include focusing on the enslaved as human beings who want and deserve the right to work for their own benefit, in a capacity they are free to choose or reject. This necessitates some basic priorities. To prevent people from falling victim to human traffickers, we must provide options for safe and legal migration, particularly for women, who are increasingly leaving their homes in search of economic opportunity, often to support their families, and who face discrimination and violence. When it comes to helping those who have already come under the control of a trafficker, “rescue” alone is not enough. “It’s just cruel to remove someone from their trafficking situation,” a survivor recently told me, “without offering them some place to go.”

We desperately need shelters—the average number of beds designated for victims of human trafficking in the U.S. is an abysmal 13 per state. Shelters must not only provide beds but also serve as a place where individuals can break from their traffickers, gain a sense of security, obtain medical and psychological care and receive legal counseling. Just as importantly, yet all too often overlooked, shelters must be a gateway to job training, skills development, and initial employment. Without dedicated programs, supported by both government and private sector funding, what chance does someone leaving a trafficker have to thrive or even survive? How does the person subjected to debt bondage make a living? Who will hire a woman on the streets since she was 14, with 50 some arrests for prostitution? And what of the person brought into a country illegally, with little knowledge of the local language, and no community to turn to for support? Frequently individuals trafficked across national borders cannot return home due to the stigma attached to their activities or the dangers from traffickers that await them. Governments must make obtaining legal residency more than a theoretical or rare possibility.

Such measures, which would help restore the human rights of trafficked individuals, are not just in the interest of these survivors. Underground economies and criminal networks, which profit greatly from human trafficking, undermine the national economies and the rule of law of many countries. Estimates of the number of trafficked individuals range from 21 million to 36 million, a huge pool of labor, people ready to work with dignity and to contribute to the legal economy in which they live. They need and deserve assistance in becoming free laborers in the truest meaning of the term.

The innovative work of social enterprises, such as Thistle Farms in the U.S. and the Not for Sale projects abroad, provides one of the most promising models for training and employing survivors in sustaining businesses. This is an area where government funding, private donors, and NGOs can join with business to make a lasting difference in the lives of trafficking survivors. We not only need to work on ensuring a living wage for workers, but, more fundamentally, that they all enjoy the most basic human rights and freedoms.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.