The Facts About the Slave Trade

To the Editor:

Ethan Kapstein ("The New Global Slave Trade," November/December 2006) offers a picture of human trafficking that is filled with factual errors, dubious claims, and faulty analysis. He has uncritically accepted the main claims of leading anti-prostitution activists and the Bush administration and totally ignored serious scholarly research on both human trafficking and the politics thereof. No one claims that human trafficking is a myth, but the problem has been hyped out of all proportion by a growing number of writers, including Kapstein.

Kapstein cites extremely high figures on the incidence of trafficking, figures that are totally fictional. No one knows the number of victims of forced labor worldwide, and even ballpark estimates are hollow. Kapstein repeats the Bush administration's figures on forced laborers (600,000-800,000 internationally, 17,500 in the United States). These numbers have been pulled out of the air. Interestingly, these figures are much lower than what the Bush administration claimed a few years ago -- four million and 50,000, respectively. Such huge changes in the alleged number of victims should raise red flags. Likewise, the State Department's (and Kapstein's) claim that 80 percent of the victims are female and 50 percent are children is bogus.

Several organizations have questioned the alleged scope of the trafficking problem. UNESCO has criticized the "spurious" figures being circulated. The U.S. Justice Department, in a 2005 report, highlighted the huge disparity between the large number of alleged victims in the United States and the tiny number of victims identified (611 over a four-year period). And the General Accountability office, in a major report in 2006, was very critical of the prevailing statistics: it concluded that all aggregate figures are problematic due to "methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies" and noted that the "data are generally not available, reliable, or comparable" from one country to another.

Equally laughable are Kapstein's claims that approximately 43 percent of the slavery victims are forced to sell sex, while 32 percent are exploited in other kinds of work. I am not aware of anyone else who has dared to disaggregate human trafficking so precisely. Where do these figures come from? Has a scientific survey of victims been conducted?

As far as coercive sex trafficking is concerned, some have argued that legalization and government regulation of prostitution might be one way of reducing the problem. Kapstein is staunchly opposed to legalization. He cites the example of the Netherlands (which formally legalized prostitution in 2000) as evidence that legalization is a failure, but he seems to contradict himself when he writes that "only the Netherlands has a better record than the United States of prosecuting those involved with the slave trade." Even the State Department, in its Trafficking in Persons Report for 2005, observed that there has been a "decrease in trafficking in the legal sector" in the Netherlands. The report also found that several other nations with legal prostitution (Australia, Germany, and New Zealand) "fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." Although we should be careful not to exaggerate the benefits of legal, government-regulated prostitution, it is plausible that it may indeed help curb trafficking. Kapstein, in his haste to dismiss legalization, does not appear to have considered this possibility and is clearly confused about the situation in the Netherlands.

Ronald Weitzer

Professor of Sociology, George Washington University

Ethan Kapstein replies:

Professor Ronald Weitzer claims that my article on the slave trade is "filled with factual errors, dubious claims, and faulty analysis." Unfortunately, he provides no evidence in support any of these assertions. The data that I used for the article were drawn from the Department of State, the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, and other officials sources. He states that these numbers are "totally fictional" but fails to provide alternative information. Until he or someone else does so, the reported data must be used as an indication of the trafficking problem.

He also calls "laughable" -- a rather callous word given that we are dealing with human lives -- the approximation that I provide of how slaves are worked. Again, these estimates are from the International Labor Organization and other sources based on such evidence as debriefings of those who have been liberated from bondage.

Finally, Weitzer questions my skepticism with respect to the benefits of legalized prostitution, pointing to the case of the Netherlands. But it is the Dutch themselves who have found that the legalization of prostitution has only led to market segmentation, with an illegal-trafficking sector continuing to boom alongside the higher-priced, legal sector. Interestingly, he does not mention the case of Sweden (perhaps because it goes against his ideological preferences?), where legal action is being taken not only on the supply side of sex worker trafficking but on the demand side as well.

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