Humanities Institute

"Human Trafficking, Forced Labor, and Our Consumer Choices:" Difficult Dialogues Spring Public Forum Tackles Complicated Issue

Wed, February 26, 2014
Panelists Shelton Green, Bruce Kellison, Sulamita Mora, Noel Busch-Armendariz at the Difficult DialoguesPublic Forum

How much forced labor goes into the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and products you use every day? What can you do to help prevent human trafficking and coerced labor? The Spring 2014 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum, “Human trafficking, Forced Labor, and Our Consumer Choices,” provided 100 students and community members with the opportunity to learn more about these issues from scholars, advocates, and each other. Noel Busch-Armendariz, professor in the School of Social Work and Director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault moderated a panel that included Bruce Kellison, Associate Director of the IC2 Bureau of Business Research; Sulamita Mora, case worker at Refugee Services of Texas, Austin; and Shelton Green, founder of Good&Fair Clothing Company.  

Dr. Busch-Amrendariz opened the evening by briefly defining what labor trafficking is. “The legal definition looks at the dynamic of the relationship,” Busch-Armendariz stressed, not whether or not a person is transported across borders. The dynamics of a human trafficking relationship include some form of coercion, whether through false promises, illegitimate contracts, or force, such as physical abuse or kidnapping. “People who have been trafficked often don’t know that they have rights,” Ms. Mora explained. Many victims of human trafficking do not recognize themselves as having been trafficked, or as victims of a crime. Non-citizens fear deportation.

Human trafficking is “deeply embedded in the global economy,” Dr. Kellison said. It persists because it benefits people who want to buy goods and services at low prices. Talking about the supply chain—each step in the manufacturing process, from raw materials to finished product— “disinfects” it, making abuses visible. Conditions of globalization, such as rapid transportation and online commerce, open new markets for forced labor. Kellison gave the example of Chinese prisoners being forced to work as players in a multi-player online game, ensuring sufficient game currency to keep consumers interested.

Shelton Green began his fairly made, fairly traded clothing company by asking himself “What if I had one outfit that I knew had been made without hurting anyone?” After much research, Green contracted with a fair trade manufacturer based in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. Why not locate in Austin, Kellison asked. The expense and logistics were “wickedly hard,” Green explained. Even with lower expenses, a pair of Good&Fair boxers retails for more than the brands available in department stores.

Under current economic conditions, consumers, retailers, and manufacturers exert pressures to pay the lowest amount possible for goods and services. “The worker is the person who can’t push back,” Kellison said. Busch-Armendariz added that many workers are afraid of losing jobs, even those in which they receive minimal wages, because there is always another worker to replace them. “Rescuing” workers from forced labor  often results in another set of problems. For non-citizen workers, “rescue” means being placed into a system in which they cannot work. But it isn’t only the loss of income that affects trafficked workers. “To have labor is a form of identity,” Mora pointed out.

Led by School of Social Work graduate student Katie Wilmes, and student volunteers from Busch-Armendariz’s UGS 303 Signature course, Modern-Day Slavery, the discussion groups then worked through the online “Slavery Footprint” exercise. The exercise guides people through a series of questions about themselves and how they live, then calculates an estimate of the number of people whose forced labor contributes to their lifestyles. Estimates for the groups ranged from 27 to 68 persons. The exercise provoked intense discussion and reflection at the tables. “Labor trafficking is beginning to really hit home for me and the people at my table, “ one participant wrote on the event evaluation.

To conclude the evening, panelists answered questions from the audience. Responding to the concern that reporting a potential trafficking case might result in deportation for the victim, Mora acknowledged that is a risk, but is not necessarily an outcome. Reporting provides safety and access to social services while the case proceeds. An audience member pointed out that many low-wage workers in the United States don’t have the ability to purchase items guaranteed to be free of coerced labor. Green encouraged people to “do what we can with what we have.” A “top-down” component that created and enforced anti-trafficking regulations, and an increase in the penalties for convicted traffickers would also reduce the problem, Kellison stated. Drawing on his remarks, Dr. Strong closed the evening by reminding the audience that not only do we have choices as consumers, we have choices as citizens. We need to exercise both to end human trafficking and coerced labor.

Dr. Busch-Armendariz recommends the following resources:

Some campus and Austin-area resources include:



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