Research News

A Contemporary Understanding of Human Trafficking

IPR’s Tabitha Bonilla examines public opinion and policy


child labor
The legal definition of human trafficking includes labor trafficking, but anti-trafficking organizations, the media, and the public continue to focus on sex trafficking.

For most, human trafficking is sex trafficking, including forced prostitution. However, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act—the cornerstone of federal human trafficking legislation passed in 2000—also covers labor trafficking, including debt bondage, forced labor, and involuntary child labor. But do media and public opinion reflect this broader definition? Tabitha Bonilla, an IPR research assistant professor, discussed her examination of the topic at a February 6 IPR colloquium.

Tabitha Bonilla
Tabitha Bonilla

The public and political elites agree that human trafficking is “reprehensible,” Bonilla said, but if they generally equate human trafficking with forced sex, rather than forced labor, this misconception could lead to a misguided or incomplete policy response. 

In her research with Cecilia Mo of Vanderbilt University, Bonilla shows even anti-trafficking organizations overwhelmingly focus on sex trafficking: In 2013, only 13 of 278 organizations focused on labor trafficking alone. Yet according to the International Labor Organization, 68 percent of human trafficking involves labor trafficking, while 32 percent is sex trafficking.

Bonilla says the media also reflect this lopsided focus. After a content analysis of newspaper articles that examined how they addressed human trafficking, she discovered that labor trafficking was one of the least discussed topics, while sex trafficking was one of the most discussed.

To delve into whether the public holds the same misconception, Bonilla and Mo conducted a lab experiment with 436 students. Each participant received a statement explaining that many people who pay agents to transport them from one country to another “end up being deceived and coerced to take work,” but with three variations: Participants were told that these people are either coerced to work in the sex industry, in an exploitative environment, or in menial labor jobs, such as working in a sweatshop.

The researchers then asked participants to describe these individuals. About 90 percent of those told that the individuals were coerced to work in the sex industry said they were victims of traffickers. When told they were forced into menial labor, though, only about 50 percent of participants said the individuals were trafficking victims, with another 40 percent describing them as illegal immigrants. 

“This seems to indicate that people really don’t know that human trafficking is also labor trafficking,” Bonilla explained.

Bonilla also experimented with framing human trafficking as one of five types of issues—either national security, human rights, women’s rights, immigration, or domestic. Framing trafficking in terms of security and as a domestic issue increases support for government action, she finds.

“It might be less about the content of the issues and more about changing the individual proximity to the issue—thinking about human trafficking as an issue of national security, as an issue that happens in our neighborhood, that really impacts how individuals care about human trafficking,” Bonilla concluded.

Tabitha Bonilla is an IPR assistant research professor.

Photo credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr.