Illuminating a Nexus: The Interplay Between Disaster Events and Exploitation

Illuminating a Nexus: The Interplay Between Disaster Events and Exploitation

Illuminating a Nexus: The Interplay Between Disaster Events and Exploitation

This blog post is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the intersection of human trafficking and disaster response by Benjamin Thomas Greer, JD, a subject matter expert in the field of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation; specifically instructing and developing human trafficking courses for law enforcement and emergency management personnel for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“A full and complete understanding of human trafficking and exploitation remains elusive as traffickers remain creative and adaptive – often finding dark corners of our society researchers and law enforcement have not yet contemplated examining. There is much we still have to learn about human trafficking.” – Benjamin Thomas Greer

It is understood that disasters thrust their victims into heightened vulnerability on many levels. While knowledge about the nexus between natural disasters and the trafficking of persons is in a nascent stage, researchers are starting to understand the victimology of disaster induced displaced persons. The instability and destruction of economic and social structures left in the wake of natural and man-made disasters provide individuals with opportunity and access to prey upon those who have been impacted. Traffickers have shown the ability to exploit these vulnerabilities in others, instilling fear and mistrust of the legal system, law enforcement, and other governmental representatives in their victims. It therefore becomes imperative that we understand the who, what, when, where and why of traffickers acting in a disaster space in order to plan for and stop their exploitative activities. 

By the end of 2019, there were approximately 50.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Of the 50.8 million, 45.7 million were displaced due to war/conflict and 5.1 million as a result of disasters. Based on the increase in extreme climate events and climate change, this number is only expected to increase. Major global disasters have doubled from 200 to over 400 per year in the last two decades leading to more people being trafficked and exploited within their home country borders than across borders. Climate-related displacement and forced migration need to be recognized as a human and homeland security threat and our emergency management agencies must incorporate mitigation tactics into their planning in order to account for this new landscape. Disasters are geographically and politically amorphous which demands a robust bi/multi-partisan, cross-border and multinational collaborative approach to effectively address this issue. It becomes imperative that comprehensive preplanning contemplate potential impact and anticipated contingency plans to address all known hazards, which must include human trafficking.

Scholars generally analyze victim vulnerabilities through the “Push and Pull” migratory framework. “Push” factors consist of events that would cause an individual to leave his or her current location and seek safety or overall educational/economic betterment elsewhere. Some of the common “push” factors include widespread poverty and unstable political structures. “Pull” factors are events or opportunities that would cause an individual to migrate to a specific location. Some of the common “pull” factors are access to education, access to higher paying jobs, and upward social mobility. A destination location or country’s demand for inexpensive labor is often a driving dominant “pull” factor. Driven by profit margins, underpinned by a globalized economy and buyers of cheap labor or sex, traffickers can leverage both the “push” and “pull” factors as vulnerabilities in their victims to exploit for their own profit. The following case studies will demonstrate both factors and how exploiters take advantage of them in a disaster setting as well as highlight the gap in knowledge about the “push” and “pull” factors that affect the exploiters themselves. 

Hurricane Katrina (2005) – Forced Labor Exploitation

The United States has a series of procedural safeguards to deter the exploitation of labor; however, these prophylactics cannot ensure the dignity of work if they are not fully and consistently enforced. The primary tool the United States Government deploys to ensure reasonable and stable wages is the Davis-Bacon Act. The Davis-Bacon Act applies to subcontractors and contractors employed on federally funded, or partially federally funded contracts in excess of $2,000 for the repair, alteration, or construction of public works or public buildings. It mandates contractors and subcontractors must pay their laborers no less than the locally prevailing wages and fringe benefits for corresponding work on similar projects within the area. Additionally, it states workers must be paid at a rate of one and one-half times their regular pay rate for hours worked over 40 hours per week on prime contracts in excess of $100,000. The other safeguard is that employers must provide proof to the Department of Homeland Security that their workers are either citizens of the United States or that they are legally permitted to work in the United States. These two laws work in a symbiotic relationship to ensure taxpayer funds are supporting legitimate work while providing stable and livable wages. Without one, or both, of these legal tools, exploitation is far more likely to occur. 

After Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the gulf coast in 2005, the region was structurally, economically, and emotionally decimated. To increase the pace of recovery, President George W. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act. Suspension of Davis-Bacon has been a more common occurrence since the 1990s, conducted with the stated intent of removing “bureaucratic” paperwork which is thought to slow recovery efforts. The suspension eliminated the requirement for federal contractors to pay their workers locally prevailing wages on all projects in excess of $2,000. Removal of this requirement made sourcing local workers less advantageous than attracting migrant workers, accustomed to much lower wages. In addition to the Davis-Bacon suspension, the Department of Homeland Security suspended the requirement that federal contractors prove that their employees are either U.S. citizens or legally permitted to work within the country. Both of these key labor safeguards were removed leaving the door open to labor exploitation. And even though the Davis-Bacon Act was only suspended for two months, its reenactment did not trigger a contract review period and its requirement was not retroactive. This allowed contractors awarded federal projects during that two-month suspension to continue employing migrant workers at below market rates. 

Post-Hurricane Katrina, Signal International (Signal) was found guilty of exploiting workers’ rights during the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act requirements. Signal, a marine construction firm specializing in the commissioning, repair, and upgrade of offshore drilling rigs, saw their workforce depleted after the storm. Recruiting agents working on behalf of Signal fraudulently induced and coerced nearly 500 guestworkers from India utilizing the H-2B guestworker program to work for Signal in the United States. The fraudulent inducement and means of coercion utilized by these recruiters primarily consisted of false promises of becoming lawful U.S. residents. In a clear example of labor exploitation and debt bondage, upon arrival recruiting agents confiscated their visas and passports, convinced the guestworkers to pay exorbitant fees to cover their recruitment, travel, and immigration processing, and threatened them with legal actions and serious bodily harm unless they worked for Signal. Once employed by Signal, the guest workers were forced to live in labor camps under unhealthy and unhygienic conditions while also suffering psychological abuse and being defrauded of hard-earned wages. Upon conclusion of the civil case, the jury found Signal, the attorney who assisted in this scheme, as well as the Indian recruiter, guilty of labor trafficking, racketeering, and discrimination

Far from helping rebuild devastated communities, systems that incentivize sourcing workers from outside of the disaster zone weaken and prolong the recovery of the impacted zone. Hiring local workers injects much needed funds into the broken system and begins the process of stabilizing the economic framework of the community. In addition, lifting these important labor protections incentivises labor recruiters and employers to commit labor exploitation and abuse. Based on the learning from past suspensions, like above, before the Davis-Bacon Act is suspended the Chief Executive (e.g. The President of the United States) should conduct, or request, a risk/benefits analysis to determine if the savings of time and resources is significantly greater than the added risk of forced and exploited labor. Attention should be paid to what factors led to exploitation in the past, as in the Signal case. What are the “push” and “pull” factors for labor recruiters and employers that led to illegal activities? This analysis should be made public and published in advance of any suspension. If suspension is implemented, a mitigating strategy based on the learning for how to prevent a repeat of the labor exploitation evidenced in the Signal case needs to be thoroughly thought through and implemented concurrently with the suspension to prevent a repeat of exploitation. 

Hurricane Harvey (2017) – Sexual Exploitation

Most emergency management professionals are familiar with the disaster life cycle: hazard mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Lack of understanding or ignorance within this disaster life cycle increases the destruction as well as slows and inhibits recovery. Failing to understand or identify a foreseeable hazard makes crafting a mitigation plan almost impossible. Sadly, most emergency managers fail to fully appreciate the many ways an exploiter will seek to leverage another’s loss and helplessness in the face of a disaster. 

In 2005, Houston was greatly affected by the sudden influx of evacuees from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As their violent and property crime rates increased, so did the number of interactions with exploiters and victims of sex and labor trafficking. In a tragic ripple effect, they witnessed how the desire for an expedited recovery process during Katrina attracted low wage laborers from other areas, some becoming victims of labor trafficking themselves, which in turn increased the demand for commercial sex at a local level and fed into the cycle of exploitation and crime. 

Utilizing the twelve years of knowledge gained between Hurricane Katrina and the anticipated impact that Hurricane Harvey would impose, the city of Houston was better prepared to counter human trafficking within their city. The city of Houston designed an aggressive anti-trafficking public awareness campaign to be deployed in the wake of disasters. The day after disaster shelters opened, the Mayor’s office had representatives at two locations assessing the shelters’ landscape and communication capabilities. In-person education and outreach regarding the individual’s trafficking vulnerability was provided. This education included the distribution of materials to those in the shelter illustrating the increased vulnerability of displaced persons to being trafficked as well as awareness of indicators that traffickers might use to recruit victims from within the shelter. This large-scale operation utilized a “cot-to-cot” strategy of speaking with each evacuee personally, in their various languages, totaling over 4,000 individuals. During and immediately after Hurricane Harvey, the Mayor’s office witnessed a precipitous decline in online sex advertisements, followed by an exponential surge a few days after the storm. Online advertisement sites such as Craigslist were full of predatory offers

“A number of factors could explain this massive uptick, including attempts by traffickers to recoup income lost during the storm, individuals entering or returning to prostitution because of loss of housing or income due to Harvey, or an influx of ads in anticipation of an increased population of male workers in the Houston area for storm recovery related work (Children at Risk, 2021).”

While causation may be debated, the city’s foresight and proactive measures to raise awareness among potential victims and service providers was prescient and likely prevented vulnerable people from falling victim to these traps. 


As experience shows, traffickers, like victims, will alter their actions and tactics based on their environment. Scant research or analysis has been conducted on the “push” and “pull” factors of the exploiters, as to how and why they select their victims and what type of events they choose to exploit. At best, we infer this knowledge by examining the victim’s vulnerabilities and presume cause/affect. It is imperative that additional research be conducted with the trafficker as the focal point, a study of proactive and mitigating responses to trafficking should be made and this collective research applied to disaster planning at a national level going forward.

These two examples illustrate how Human Trafficking Task Forces everywhere need to collaborate with and incorporate disaster planning and response into their “whole-community” anti-trafficking strategy. The results of Hurricane Harvey and other disasters have demonstrated weaknesses in our current response design. As traffickers evolve in their tactics, so should our response. The Houston Human Trafficking Task Force and the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force have begun planning and preparing to address this nexus; other HTTFs across the US and around the world should learn from and follow their lead. 

Because traffickers tend to adapt quickly to changing environmental factors, such as legal protections, enforcement mechanisms and customer demand, they are more nimble than governmental structures and are able to exploit system vulnerabilities at a much greater pace. With better understanding of how traffickers and exploiters weigh the cost benefit of their actions, select their targets and evade detection or protective measures, we will be better informed on how to respond legislatively, and tactically to prevent exploitation, as well as how best to support the healing of victims and the community in the wake of a disaster.

Part 1: Avoiding Cascading Effects: Why Suspension of The Davis-Bacon Act May Allow Forced/Exploited Labor

Part 2: Preparing for the Known Unknown: Human Trafficking and Disaster Response

Benjamin Thomas Greer, JD – Mr. Greer is a subject matter expert in the field of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation; specifically instructing and developing human trafficking courses for law enforcement and emergency management personnel for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Before joining OES, he served as a Special Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice. Aside from his work with CalOES he is a Research Associate for the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking.


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