Contributing to the fight against human trafficking

Over the past couple of years human trafficking, or "modern day slavery" as it’s often called, has been gaining traction in the media. However, there seems to be some confusion as to what it actually entails. Unlike in Hollywood movies, human trafficking rarely involves the abduction of middle class white women into sex work on luxury boats. More commonly, desperate people from poor, rural villages, who are forced to migrate as they have no employment opportunities in their hometowns, are deceived by recruiters - who they usually know, and are often related to - into dangerous, dirty and degrading work that they cannot escape from.  

Human trafficking is a hugely complex issue which results from a number of factors, most of which stem from inescapable poverty. The causes and complexities of trafficking vary depending on each country context, and are therefore too vast to cover in this blog post, but I can introduce some of the situations that people I have worked with faced when they were trafficked.  

When researching in-country migration and its links to trafficking in the Philippines I interviewed girls whose virginities had been sold by their own parents. In small communities where there is no work and a surplus of unemployed low-skilled workers, there is fierce competition for resources. This competition can lead to dodgy and deceitful behaviour in order to survive - including betraying one’s own family members. At the same time, police and social workers are also seen to be abandoning their duties to protect young girls, and are often involved in the trafficking process themselves, if they can make a personal profit from the transaction. After all, they’re poor too. If a trafficking case actually makes it to court, witnesses and judges are routinely bribed by traffickers to drop cases. It appears that betrayals and corruption are rampant at every level of society. 

It was very difficult to get my head around the idea of selling a daughter, and of social workers intentionally letting girls go with traffickers, but I learned that there are deeper issues at play where intense competition for jobs and resources is combined with devastating hopelessness. I wondered what I would have done if I had been born into those circumstances. Who’s to say that I would have been capable of acting differently, and according to a moral code that no one around me was using? How would I even know of this code if I had never witnessed or been taught it? 

People are shaped by their circumstances, and desperation causes people to grasp at survival strategies which are often unthinkable to us in the comfortable West. If you had nine children to feed, clothe and educate, and a sick and dependent widowed mother, and someone offered you your husband’s annual salary for one of your daughters - would you be able to say no? What if you knew that your neighbour, your cousin and your friend from high school had all betrayed their daughters in the same way, so no one would really blame you for it?  

I’m not trying to justify these actions, but rather attempting to understand the context in which someone comes to the point of considering to sell their own daughter, and concludes that this is the only thing they can do. 

Within this complicated environment the overarching goal of almost everyone I spoke to was to migrate to Singapore, or another richer, foreign country, where they believed all their problems and those of their families would be solved.  


Coming to Singapore it was devastating to discover what happens to many of those ‘lucky’ ones that make it to the promised land.  


For over a year now, I have been working with foreign domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and India, all of whom became victims of trafficking as they migrated to Singapore. Most foreign domestic workers come to work in Singapore through employment agents who take care of all their documents and travelling logistics. For these services,the women are forced to pay their first 7 or 8 months' salary to their agents, despite a legal limit of 2 months. On top of working for free for 7 months, they are also required to work 6 days a week (often 7) and because they live with their employers, they effectively work around the clock. While these conditions are harsh, they are accepted by most domestic workers as it's the only way for them to provide for their families who depend on the money they send home.These conditions form the basic working life for most foreign domestic workers in Singapore. But many others have a much harder time. 

The women I meet and interview have suffered through various experiences ranging from intense physical violence to psychological torture. Their vulnerable status as migrant workers, isolation from living in their workplace, limited English ability and often low education, mean they are easily exploited and powerless to defend themselves. The fact that their work permit is tied to their employers who are allowed to deport them at a whim, means they endure the abuse for as long as they can, to provide for their families. The large debts the women incur in the recruitment process increase the pressure on them to stay and endure constant abuse, essentially trapping them in a system of debt bondage. 

so what can we do about it?

Eliminating human trafficking is similar to ending global poverty and establishing world peace. It’s Mission Impossible. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. It is important to raise awareness of the issues migrant workers face and to understand the complex circumstances which lead people to seek employment outside their hometown, and why some people engage in dubious behaviours which can lead to their family members being trafficked. This understanding creates empathy among the public which leads to greater support of anti-trafficking initiatives, as well as puts pressure on governments to crack down on the root causes of trafficking such as poverty and corruption.  

There are hundreds of great anti-trafficking initiatives run by people who understand the issues, know where the trafficking hotspots are and are efficient in preventing trafficking, protecting victims and prosecuting traffickers. Gina and Gavin, for example are raising $1,500 through Just Peoples, for Siti and nine other survivors of trafficking to attend weekly classes for six months at an academy where they will learn business and life skills. This will enable them to find paid employment in Indonesia once their court cases are settled so they can support their families in a safe environment and avoid having to migrate again. It can also prevent more girls from the survivors’ hometowns from being trafficked as they educate other girls about the risks of migration and encourage them to pursue education instead. 

Another initiative supported by Just Peoples provides immediate relief for Indonesian domestic workers in crisis: $1,300 will pay for the rental of the Rescue Centre space for six months in the shopping mall where the Indonesian community congregates each Sunday. The Rescue Centre will enable mistreated Indonesians to safely escape abusive employers, find shelter, legal support and alternative safe employment. The Centre will be run by Yuli, a domestic worker who was mistreated by her former employer and is determined to help other Indonesians who are being abused. 

So despite the fact that fighting human trafficking seems like an impossible challenge, one person’s actions can directly support a number of trafficking survivors to escape exploitation and rebuild their lives. By supporting these organisations and enabling them to run their projects, we can contribute to combating this massive issue. A relatively small amount of effort or money for us can turn around survivors’ lives and impact entire communities. This is what we can do.

Mural to raise awareness of human trafficking in Northern Samar, Philippines

Mural to raise awareness of human trafficking in Northern Samar, Philippines

Trafficking definition

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring 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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”

Teenage girls intercepted by the anti-trafficking taskforce, Northern Samar, Philippines

Teenage girls intercepted by the anti-trafficking taskforce, Northern Samar, Philippines


facts and figures

  • Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys.

  • Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups.

  • Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.

  • Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.

  • Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors most concerned.

  • Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.

  • Source

Christey interviewing survivor of labour trafficking,  Northern Samar,  Philippines

Christey interviewing survivor of labour trafficking, Northern Samar, Philippines

Storiesjo peek