Research News

Vanderbilt researcher working to fight human trafficking, slavery

Fighting human trafficking should involve the whole supply chain, from the usually poverty-stricken victims who get caught up in it to the consumers who support it with their money, says a Vanderbilt University researcher.

“You talk to people today and they think slavery is gone, that it’s a problem of the past,” said Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “The number of enslaved or trafficked individuals today is estimated anywhere from 10 to 30 million worldwide and an additional 215 million children are engaged in child labor. That contrasts with the 12.5 million that were enslaved during the 350 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Slavery is very much a problem of the present.”

$1 million grant

Cecilia Mo (Vanderbilt)

Mo and colleague Margaret Boittin, who will start a position as an assistant professor at York University in the fall, will soon test the effectiveness of public awareness campaigns about human trafficking in China and Nepal, financed by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The Labor Department announced the awards Jan. 22 totaling $11 million to 14 entities to strengthen oversight and effectiveness of programs to combat child labor and forced labor. They are also getting support from USAID, Humanity United, Terre des Hommes and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University for their work in Nepal.

Poverty at root of problem

In Nepal, Mo has encountered families so mired in poverty that they “start taking risks” by embracing opportunities to send their children to work in other countries.

“There may be nothing in their community,” she said. “They may have been devastated by a landslide or floods. Their country may not be in a position to provide a safety net for them. They may not have gotten proper schooling, and they may not be a skilled worker. … It is heartbreaking to see these families where they know about human trafficking but they also know that their daughter could end up in a legitimate factory and make more money than they ever could in their community.”

This situation is in large part a poverty issue, Mo says. It is only solvable by providing safe economic options for impoverished people to advance themselves. However, increased awareness around potential outcomes to particular labor and migration decisions may still help families make informed decisions that put themselves and their families at less risk.

Consumers can help

[lquote]Getting good information to consumers of certain products may also be the key to shutting down industries that exploit or enslave workers[/lquote], Mo says.

“When you want to have that glitter in your makeup, do you know that it is coming from little girls in India who are sitting and picking at minerals?” Mo says. “If you know that, are you OK with not consuming makeup with that glitter component in it? I’d like to think that’s the case, if people knew it would affect the choices people made.”