What is Human Trafficking?

Human Trafficking Defined

There are many definitions of human trafficking. California, the federal government, and the United Nations each define human trafficking slightly differently, and you can see the definitions below. But simply put, it is an egregious form of human rights abuse through the exploitation of humans through force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor.

California law defines human trafficking as “all acts involved in the recruitment, abduction, transport, harboring, transfer, sale or receipt of persons, within national or across international borders, through force, coercion, fraud or deception, to place persons in situations of slavery or slavery like conditions, forced labor or services, such as forced prostitution or sexual services, domestic servitude, bonded sweatshop labor, or other debt bondage.”

Federal law defines trafficking in person as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age”; or “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

The International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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 sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” –Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (article 3 (a)).


Human trafficking is an incredibly complex issue, and there are a myriad of factors. But to understand why human trafficking, a modern day form of slavery, still exists today, we have to look at a few factors.

Traffickers have identified that there is low risk and a high reward in the trafficking of humans, and find that humans are a reusable resource. Methods of coercion are used to influence a victim to continue to work for the traffickers’ profits.

Supply and demand is another model that drives human trafficking. Increased demands from consumers for cheap(er) goods demands cheap labor from corporations, which leads to the exploitation of workers.

A variety of social conditions and systemic inequalities can make individuals vulnerable to human trafficking, and these forces can be divided broadly into “push” and “pull” factors.

“Push Factors” can include the following:

  • Gender-based, sexual orientation-based, gender identity-based violence
  • Ethnic discrimination
  • Lack of educational or vocational opportunities
  • Increasing rates of poverty and unemployment
  • Political persecution, civil unrest, and gang violence
  • Tight immigration and migration policies in destination countries that contribute to unsafe migration
  • Unmonitored labor sectors

“Pull Factors” can include the following:

  • Opportunities for securing gainful employment
  • Receiving an education abroad
  • Available migration routes
  • Established immigrant communities in destination countries
  • Desire to join family members
  • Desire to improve income or incomes of family
  • High demand for cheap and unskilled labor in destination countries

A region like the Bay Area, or even the state of California, is an area that sees a prevalence in human trafficking because of such factors, like its ports and airports, significant immigrant populations and large economies that include industries that attract forced labor.

Some common industries for human trafficking are:

  • Domestic Work (i.e. cleaning homes, child care, elder care, etc.)
  • Hotel and Restaurant Services (i.e. hospitality services, housekeeping, etc.)
  • Agricultural Industries
  • Health and Beauty Services
  • Forced Smuggling, Selling, and/or Cultivation of Drugs
  • Spas and Massage Parlors
  • Residential and Commercial Brothels

(Partially Sourced: National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum’s, “Rights to Survival & Mobility: An Anti-Trafficking Activist’s Agenda” (2009))