You have reached the main content

Are you a human trafficker?

On March 15, 2015
Understanding of what human trafficking means will help you determine if you are a party to the exploitation. These questions will help you become aware of your role in the trafficking chain.

Human trafficking is tantamount to slavery, and laws in the GCC – especially the Kafala system – facilitate it to a degree, Employers – both individuals and organizations – need to be aware that many common unethical practices constitute trafficking and forced labour.  Few realize that the conditions they impose on their employees, physically harmless as they may be, amount to grave rights violations.

For the many citizens who employ domestic help and organizations that employ a large number of low-income migrant workers, this quiz may be useful in identifying and mitigating one’s role in human trafficking.

The common denominator in all trafficking scenarios is the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for commercial sex or for the purpose of subjecting a victim to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or forced labour. The use of force or coercion can be direct and violent, or psychological.

[tweetable]Though we tend to perceive trafficking as related to sex work, and as something that happens only in the most marginalized of communities, much of trafficking today very visibly operates for the purposes of forced labour.[/tweetable]

According to the UN Protocol on trafficking:

"[T]he recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat, use of force or other means of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the receiving or giving of payment… to a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

The phrases in bold are the types of exploitation that moderately unaware employers are most likely to commit.

Trafficking can occur at any point in the recruitment or migration cycle. [tweetable]Some employers are unaware that they are hiring a trafficked worker, but this article focuses primarily on the environment under the employer’s control.[/tweetable]

The short quiz in the sidebar will help you identify points of exploitation and trafficking, and determine if you are in any way complicit in forced labour.

Recruitment by deception – can include deception regarding the nature or conditions of work, and be intentionally or unintentionally exacted by recruitment agents, family, friends, or employers. Deceptive recruitment also includes the recruitment of individuals for non-existent jobs.

For example, domestic workers are often unaware that their responsibilities may include nannying in addition to looking after the house and are overwhelmed by employers’ unrealistic expectations. The toll taken on workers can be extreme – in December 2013, a domestic worker in Kuwait committed suicide after her sponsor berated her for neglecting her children.

Work and life under duress – can include forced overtime, limited freedom of movement, degrading living and working conditions, denunciation to authorities, physical, psychological threats or violence, confinement, constant surveillance, lack of rest periods, isolation, and restrictions on communication.

For example, domestic workers are frequently confined to their employer’s residence, do not enjoy rest days, and work over 10 hours a day. Labourers often endure hazardous living conditions, with several men sharing a single room that lacks basic amenities; In Bahrain, numerous labour camp fires have taken the lives of migrant workers. Unsafe working conditions, particularly with building scaffolding, are also prevalent throughout the region. HRW’s report on the UAE’s ‘Saadiyat’ islands documents the pervasiveness of unsafe or otherwise difficult working conditions even amongst major, conspicuous projects.

Inability to leave employer (due to threat or penalty) – includes consequences and facets of the sponsorship system, such as the inability to change employers, sponsor’s ability to refuse the release of workers or charge high release fees, as well as sponsor’s ability to withhold wages and personal travel documents to prevent workers from running away. Exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees can also prevent indebted migrants from leaving unfavourable employment situations.

Individual sponsors and numerous leading firms continue to confiscate employees’ documents to “protect” their investment from leaving the country or escaping to another employer. In a recent case disclosed to, a sponsor forced her domestic worker to pay 600 dirhams to release her to another employer and thereafter prevented the worker from obtaining other employment. The worker escaped to her placement agency but was told to return because her employ was rich, and because her embassy would not intervene on her behalf. The worker remains in limbo in a Dubai-based recruitment agency, with no security for remuneration or for future employment.

GCC and human trafficking

Many GCC states are reluctant to address the severe trafficking of persons across their borders, even despite establishing several organizations to combat it. They are reluctant to recognize forms of trafficking outside of forced sex work and even then underreport their occurrences. The GCC countries lashed out against 2013 ILO report on trafficking in the region, claiming that the accounts were anecdotal rather than a prevalent issue. But the Kafala system lends itself to trafficking and forced labour.

The sponsorship system gives employers disproportionate power, leeway into the livelihood of domestic workers. The system itself is one factor in forced labour. But it’s precisely for this reason that legislation doesn’t need to change before behaviour changes. You can encourage positive change by minding your own practices and those of your community.

Feature image credit: A section of the mural 'Between memory, desert and sea' by Doug Cooper, at the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.