Addressing Human Trafficking: Let’s Shift the Onus from Individuals to Businesses and Policy Makers

Addressing Human Trafficking: Let’s Shift the Onus from Individuals to Businesses and Policy Makers

Addressing Human Trafficking: Let’s Shift the Onus from Individuals to Businesses and Policy Makers


When it comes to human trafficking, the rising role of citizens’ self-regulatory behaviour – through eating Fairtrade produce, avoiding blatantly cheap carwashes, social media campaigns, and partaking in clothes-swaps – is admirable, useful and potentially can lead to change through lobbying with one’s wallet. However, on an issue such as human trafficking we need more than social activism. During the weakening of democratic control, and the growing pluralism of those with whom we enter into a social contract, we still need nation states, working together, to reign in profit-driven economic forces and be more effective in implementing policies that protect workers and vulnerable groups. The emphasis on collaboration amongst nation states is particularly important in a time of global production, including in places with a weaker rule of law.

Don’t make us do all the work

The close proximity of the citizen to the output of forced labour, whether it is a chocolate bar or consumption of a sexual service delivered by a victim of human trafficking, has meant that we the people have been selected as ideally placed to help fight and prevent the crime. Thus, in combatting human trafficking much focus has been on awareness amongst the populous. Calling on the people to spot the signs, buy ethically sourced products and report the crime. Regrettably, awareness does not always translate into concrete results.

It is not enough to develop “top tips” that show individuals how to play their part in combating human trafficking (or other sicknesses of our times such as climate change); instead those who are mostly accountable and have the power to make structural changes need to act too. An article in the Guardian on climate change summarised this well:

 ‘[w]hile we busy ourselves greening our personal lives [e.g., installing better light bulbs], fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant.’[1]

Policy makers and businesses cannot expect the public to do all the work, especially when the public is inadequately informed around the true nature of the problem. Why am I saying that the public is poorly equipped and/or inadequately informed? Existing campaigns that call on the public to act do not paint a true picture of the causes and contexts of the human trafficking process. Molland rightly highlights that the illustration of the horrors faced by victims ‘does not extend to a meaningful critique of the political and economic conditions that enable the possibility of labour exploitation and abuse in the first place.’[2]  Sharapov and Mendel add that, while ‘there is a great deal of media coverage of and policy interest in human trafficking alongside a great deal of ‘awareness raising’ activity, this does not generally lead to enhanced knowledge about trafficking or more evidence-informed policy.’[3] There seems not to be enough discussion of how economic liberalism with its physiognomies of privatisation, freedom of movement, trade and competition, contributes to the problem.

The trouble is not outreach of communication, but rather the messages that are being communicated. Diverse audiences have been reached – professionals, school children, faith groups, migrants and taxi drivers.[4]  However, the message still fails to consider the systemic context of human trafficking. It focuses on a crime committed against an individual but ignores the socio-economic environment in which this crime was committed.

That is not to say that all awareness raising activities should stop or that all are bad. However, we ought to shift the onus from the individuals and aim our communication at businesses and policy makers. We should message to businesses that if they enter into the social contract with us the society – as they have done – they need to recognise the liberty first principle. As Rawls highlights, liberty is the first concern of people and respect for the same is a prime responsibility of all, including businesses. Interpreting what liberty means in terms of human trafficking is simple; do not create a framework in which humans can be exploited.

Yet, because the responsibility to act on these issues and regulate goes against business culture – businesses instead prefer to cut costs, including as related to safety standards and labour – it is unlikely that the private sector will truly deliver, no matter how much we throw social contract theories at them. Every issue – whether climate change, human trafficking or right to privacy – demonstrates that it is not enough to ask industries to regulate themselves. Thus, the messages behind the campaigns should be that there is a need for greater, and global, policy intervention, one that demands more than vague statements or requirement of lax audit operations as in the case of the Modern Slavery Bill 2015 (UK). Policy should be designed to re-examine economic priorities; growth versus welfare of workers. The goal should be not to eliminate economic growth but to re-think it, so that the comforts of the few do not come from the exploitation of the many.

Dr Julia Muraszkiewicz is a Senior Research Manager and part of the Applied Research and Innovation team at Trilateral Research. She leads the team’s work on human trafficking, criminal law, victimology research and innovation

[1] M. Lukacks, ‘Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals’ The Guardian, 17 July 2017,

[2] S. Molland, ‘Humanitarianized’ Development? Anti-trafficking Reconfigured’, Development of Change, 2018,

[3] Ibid, p.5

[4] Stop the Traffik, Together We Can Stop the Traffik,


Leave Your Comment