Contextualizing Human Trafficking

Contextualizing Human Trafficking and Forced Labor

In the previous blog post, many of us noted the importance of the aesthetics of humanitarian communication affecting the ethics of solidarity, or how one seeing violence affects the way one reacts to said violence. Further, this problematizing of violence in itself shapes laws to counter the violence which we see, whether that is forced labor or trafficking. Yet, many of these laws are general and this is why it is so detrimental to contextualize trafficking to further understand the issue itself. To explain trafficking and forced labor and its causes and entanglements in different cultural, political, and economic forces is no easy task. It is, like this prompt states, complex and varied across contexts, which is why one needs to consider the importance of contextualizing forced labor.

The Need to Contextualize Human Trafficking and Forced Labor

In the introduction, I called attention to the fact that many laws that are set in place to counter forced labor or trafficking are, in a sense, general. Today, it is “widely recognized that effectively tackling forced labor in the global economy means addressing its ‘root causes’”, with many believing poverty and globalization to be the ‘root causes’ (1). Yet, these two terms are too broad to fully explain what causes the exploitation of workers and their work. This also limits ways in which policymakers can address the issue; “if we cannot understand the issues we face, we are limited in what we can do about them” (1). It is not that these root causes do not matter, it is just they do not present lawmakers with the full picture. When we contextualize human trafficking or forced labor, we are better able to understand other types of trafficking or forced labor and better counter the issue. How do we better understand trafficking and forced labor though?

According to Confronting root causes: forced labor in global supply chains, forced labor is not simply caused by poverty and globalization. It must be approached with a “systematic and informed fashion” since forced labor is itself systematic (1). It is embedded in “deeper socio-economic structures that lie at the core of the capitalist global economy” (1). Because of this, Confronting asserts that instead of “simple consequence(s) of greed or the moral shortcomings of individuals, forced labor in global supply chains is a structural phenomenon that results when predictable, system-wide dynamics intersect to create a supply of highly exploitable workers and a business demand for their labor” (1). Forced labor resembles the economic system of supply and demand with its dynamics causing forced labor to be: poverty, identity and discrimination, limited labor protections, and restrictive mobility regimes (1). These dynamics are on the supply side that create a “pool of workers vulnerable to exploitation” (1). Forced labor, on the demand side, is created by concentrated corporate power and ownership, outsourcing, irresponsibly sourcing practices, and governance gaps (1). These dynamics “create pressure within the market for highly exploitable forms of labor or open up spaces with which that labor can be exploited” (1). With this in mind, I believe it is easier to understand trafficking and forced labor and therefore contextualize the issue. From here I would like to explore actual examples from the recent past or today that can be looked at with this new focus.

Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the Exploitation of its Migrant Workers

According to Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi “migrant construction workers from within Russia and from abroad” made it possible for the “formerly . . . small resort town” along the coast of the Black Sea to become the Olympic Village, which boasted “state-of-the-art sports venues, lavish hotels, newly constructed roads . . . and [the] major infrastructure [needed] to support” the event (2). Many of the workers suffered due to the much needed fast-paced construction. They underwent “abuse and exploitation while employed on key Olympic venues” (2). The interview, which Race to the Bottom is based on, questioned 66 migrant workers who stated: “employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all” (2). The workers even made note that employers would “[withhold] identity documents, such as passports and work permits . . . and [fail] to provide employment contracts” (2). Lastly, many said they had to work an excessive number of hours and had little time off. I believe the abusive and exploitative nature presented here exemplifies the causes of forced labor on both the supply and demand side of the Confronting metaphor.

Race to the Bottom stresses the importance of “the Russian government [having] obligations under national and international law to protect workers, including migrant workers, from abuse . . . [and provide said workers] with written employment contracts [and] limits on working hours” (2), yet it is evident that this was not brought to fruition. A majority of those interviewed for the report “signed written employment contracts at the start of their work on a site, as required under Russian law”, but “were not given a copy of the contract” (2). Also, the workers “stated that they worked long hours and had very few days off” (2). Workers were to work twelve-hour shifts, “with one hour for meals and for changing into and out of work gear” (2). They stated that they “worked seven days a week for weeks at a time, with just one day off every two weeks” (2). Russian law specifies at least one day off per week, yet the migrant workers were not provided this one day off per week.

This image is from the Coastal Cluster of the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia.

With the Confronting metaphor of supply and demand in mind, I believe explaining why this came to be is not difficult. On the demand side, the outsourcing of labor the Russian Federation most likely took part in in order to build the Sochi Olympic Village “fragment[ed] responsibility for labor standards [which made] oversight and accountably very difficult” (1). This should have been easily avoided, since the Russian government had the obligation to protect the workers, yet it is evident from the report that the workers were not protected. The limited labor protections, one dynamic relating to the supply side of the Confronting metaphor, created a myriad of unprotected migrant workers who could not act collectively (1). Their inability to collectively exert their rights compounded with the Russian Federation’s inability to oversee and account that the workers were protected led to the exploitation of the migrant workers. This is not the only example of exploitative work. Commodities, such as strawberries, palm oil, and even coffee are linked to “some of the worst forms of labor abuse in the global economy” (3).

The Sad Truth About Coffee

As college students, many of us probably consume coffee nearly every day and never think whether it was ethically sourced. It affects each of us that drink it since it is “one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world . . . and is the second most traded commodity world-wide after oil (3). According to Verité, a global, independent, non-profit organization, coffee is produced with either forced labor or forced child labor, specifically in Côte d’Ivoire (3). Its own research even suggests forced labor closer to home, with indicators of forced labor in Guatemalan and Mexican coffee sectors (3). Coffee is often produced by smallholder farms or grown on plantations (3). Harvesting is often labor-intensive, and this is where forced labor comes into play. The holders of these small farms or plantations, especially in countries such as Guatemala, “recruit workers via labor brokers, leaving workers vulnerable to debt bondage and other indicators of forced labor” (3). I believe this draws a parallel to the previous example of the forced labor that was seen during the construction of the Olympic Village in Sochi.

How often do you drink coffee? Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world and is often produced with forced labor or forced child labor.

Holders of the coffee farms or plantations that recruit workers via labor brokers essentially feed into the causes of forced labor. In the previous paragraphs we saw how, according to Confronting’s metaphor on the demand side, outsourcing disseminates labor standards, making accountability difficult, which is seen here in this example with the exploitation of labor within coffee. Also, many who work on these farms are to be paid every 15 days but are only “paid every month or at the end of the [coffee] harvest” (3). This leaves many in debt to their employer, “encouraging the workers to stay on the estates until the harvest season [is] over” (3). This relates to the supply side of the Confronting metaphor; many of the workers, who are not regularly paid, are “pushed into situations of exploitative or forced work by the fact that they lack viable alternatives” (1). They are then unable to collectively exert their rights, just like the migrant workers in the construction of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (1).


In this blog post, I hoped to contextualize different examples of forced labor in different cultural and political perspectives. With examples from both Russia and Central America, I believe I called attention to the fact that forced labor is complex and entangled in socio-economic structures, like capitalism, that call for outsourcing and other erroneous methods. This is only the tip of the ice burg, but I believe these examples shed light on the issue of forced labor for policymakers; with a better understanding of forced labor, it is evident that preexisting laws that only match the experiences previously seen need revision to counter all forms of forced labor.

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  • LeBaron, Genevieve, et al. Confronting root causes: forced labor in global supply chainsConfronting root causes: forced labor in global supply chains.
  • “Race to the Bottom | Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.” Human Rights Watch, 19 Oct. 2015,
  • “Verité.” Verité,

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