Guest Column: It takes a village to end human trafficking

By Mara Vanderslice Kelly

Human trafficking is the act of compelling someone into work or commercial sex through force, fraud or coercion. It is illegal everywhere but happens every day in big cities and small towns across the United States.

Human trafficking takes many forms: A foster care youth forced into commercial sex work by someone pretending to be her “boyfriend;” a migrant locked in a house, compelled to cook and clean; a man with a mental health disability laboring in a poultry processing plant for no pay. It occurs across oceans and in our own backyards.

Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry. There are more than 40 million victims worldwide – including many in the United States. The National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded 11,500 domestic cases in 2019.

And those were just the reported cases. Many more are never brought to light.

Sadly, marginalized communities – including people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, undocumented immigrants and survivors of abuse – are more likely to become victims. Studies estimate that 40% of U.S. sex trafficking victims are black Americans and over 60% of labor trafficking victims are Hispanic.

There is no silver bullet to end human trafficking and it won’t happen overnight. However, a concerted effort from all levels of society to combat this evil is our best hope to end it.

When communities come together, we can develop a comprehensive response. United Way is proud to leverage our network of more than 1,000 United Ways in 40 countries to identify and support local stakeholders in the fight against trafficking. By mobilizing individuals, businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations, our Center to Combat Human Trafficking helps coordinate efforts to end this systemic injustice.

This comprehensive approach is being piloted in cities across the country, from Las Vegas to Atlanta. Each program is designed to address each community’s unique challenges, from child abuse to poverty to homelessness.

Companies can work to educate their employees and marshal donations toward projects dedicated to combatting trafficking. Many employees at UPS, for instance, are trained to spot signs of trafficking on their daily routes. UPS employees have given millions of dollars to anti-trafficking efforts led by United Way’s Center.

Additionally, business leaders can strive to employ survivors of trafficking. Secure employment and financial stability help reduce one’s risk of being trafficked again. Employing survivors may require more inclusive hiring practices, like not automatically disqualifying those with criminal records. As one advisor at the Human Trafficking Legal Center explains, trafficking victims are often “arrested and prosecuted for their traffickers’ crimes.”

Individuals can support anti-human trafficking initiatives by considering their purchasing choices. Consumers can look for signs of sex and labor trafficking in stores, salons, hotels and restaurants. They can research whether brands employ responsible sourcing practices in their supply chains.

Concerned voters have immense influence to wield, too. Congress will soon reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was first passed in 2000 to prosecute traffickers and support survivors. Americans can call their representatives and urge them to pass this legislation and fund anti-trafficking efforts.

Every day, our lives intersect with this issue through the products we purchase, the systems we perpetuate and people we pass on the street. Each of us has the opportunity and ability to combat human trafficking. United, we can end it.

Mara Vanderslice Kelly is the executive director of the United Way Center to Combat Human Trafficking.

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