How are we part of trafficking demand?

Why is demand important?

Human trafficking is constantly presented in media and perceived by us, as a problem of the third world and of the poor, developing countries. Most of us are aware that the services that the trafficked people provide are services that somebody, somewhere, requires and is willing to pay for. In the anti-trafficking measures, this demand side is substantially neglected in favour of the “supply bias”, namely where the victims come from and how the circumstances that form their lives can be improved to prevent them from being trafficked. However, if there was no demand for cheap labour for cheap consumption, organ removal, speedy illicit adoptions, cheap domestic or sexual services, there would most likely be no supply.

Of course, the supply side is still important, if not essential, to invest in sustainable development in certain parts of the world where many victims, and traffickers, come from, to reduce inequality, corruption and lack of social mobility that pushes people into crime and makes others seek alternative places to live.

Traffickers tend to follow the demand and supply indicators substantially more intricately than regular, legal markets do, simply because they have no subsidies, nor any particular social (or legal) obligation. This is the primary, and the simplest, reason as to why the anti-trafficking responses need to address the consumers, as traffickers will only respond to what we want and need.

How can demand be addressed in the fight against trafficking?

Anti-trafficking countermeasures are usually led by states and non-governmental organisations, and despite all the good they can accomplish, the efforts become moot without the involvement of the private sector. Businesses are more able to supervise and influence current trends in demand and product supply. Most trafficking of people appear in relation to primary products, before these become refined consumer goods, but it does happen at various stages of the supply chains, from people being forced to work on coffee or banana plantations to people sewing t-shirts in sweatshops. And because some parts of forced labour occur so far back, and so covertly, in the supply chain, it is sometimes difficult for us to know, or even to find out if we should like to. For the eradication of trafficking, it is essential for private companies to be more transparent in their supply chains and to induce more concrete accountability reprisals, for when they fail to provide this, which is what the state could, in fact, be the leading actor in achieving.

As mentioned, many people tend to automatically think of obvious demands, such as e.g. those seeking commercial sexual services – both locally to themselves and those who are willing to go abroad to big sex tourism destinations. But the hidden, more subtle, demand is much bigger. Even though over 50% (UNODC, 2012) of all victims trafficked to or within Europe or the Americas, are done so for sexual purpose, the demand for that is not equivalent to 50% of the total demand – because the largest part of the demand is in fact unconscious, from our side. Purchasing sexual services is a direct, evident act of demand for something that is perhaps morally (or even legally, in some places) not right – whilst there is nothing wrong with purchasing a t-shirt from the high street or coffee in the grocery store, and that is why we don’t think about it, because our demand appears much higher up in the supply chain.

These particular demands, specifically sexual services, have been dealt with differently in different countries. In Sweden, since 1998, the act of purchasing commercial sex has been illegal, but it is however not illegal to sell it – thus, protecting the “victim” from legal prosecution and further affecting the dignity of those who have already been exposed. In Germany and the Netherlands it is legal to both sell and buy sex, making it a regular labour sector which can be monitored and regulated accordingly. These are the most obvious benefits with the “morally bad” acts that bear a general consensus – however we can’t make it illegal or regulate people’s buying of general products. So what can we do, as representatives of the demand? Consumers do, however, have more power, than they think, to demand change from companies by making conscious purchasing choices. This is of course easier with products that are less essential, for example clothing or electronics, rather than food. The food industry is for obvious reasons more difficult to boycott or demand quick institutional change for, as we are more dependent on it than we are on non-essential goods.


Spread the word and form an interest amongst others about this large issue. Inform others of what you know. Create a circle of inquisitive people. Just being aware that, whether we want it or not, we are prolonging the endurance of modern slavery, is a significant first step. For as long as we are willing to admit our role in the supply chains and change our routines, even if only a little at a time, that is significant.

Invite anti-trafficking organisations to come and educate you, your co-workers or your fellow students. It can be a long and tedious process to lobby for the inclusion of trafficking in curriculums or training for professionals that seem far away from the topic in their everyday work experience, but setting up e.g. school societies or projects just once or as an annual event can prove really helpful in awareness raising. These suggestions are by no means enough to combat this human rights abuse that has become so integral, so institutionalised in global economy, but these guidelines are a step in the direction.