Money, Corruption and Slavery

The labor recruiter told Nayantara of a well-paying position as a maid in the Middle East. She left her job at a carpet factory in Nepal to find she had been sold to a brothel in India. Nayantara was enslaved and forced to have sex with 35 men a day or the owner would beat her with an iron pole. When police raided the brothel, the madam bribed her way out of prison. When police released Nayantara 17 months later, she was sent back to the brothel.

Anna's trafficker beat her, raped her and sliced her with knives to keep her in submission. He had abducted her from Albania and forced her into prostitution in western Europe. After five months, he tried to transport her to a second country. At the border, Anna told officials she was traveling on a false passport. The police sent her to a refugee camp where two Albanian social workers released her back to her trafficker.

It was the police who abducted Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist, and bundled her into a van. She had written a book accusing one of Mexico's richest businessmen and local politicians of conspiring with human traffickers in child pornography and sex trafficking rings in Cancun. For 20 hours they drove her across Mexico, a gun rammed in her face as police taunted her with threats that she would be drowned, raped or murdered. Cacho was jailed for a year on defamation and libel for naming and shaming of Mexico's elite.

A common thread runs through all these stories - corruption of public officials. Corruption is the grease that allows the spread of a global industry in human trafficking, which the International Labour Organisation estimates generates at least $32 billion in profits annually, more than the total earnings last year of Apple Inc and McDonalds Corp combined. Without the bribery and collusion of police officers, immigration and border control, government workers, transportation officials, judges or anyone in power, traffickers could not enslave an estimated 21 million women, men and children each year, transporting many from one end of the world to the other.

Bribes smoothed the smuggling on trains, trucks, ships and aeroplanes of these victims, who told their stories to the Thomson Reuters Foundation and to U.S. State Department officials. Bribes slide people daily across international borders. Bribes silence the landlords who rent buildings for traffickers to imprison their slaves. Police officers are bribed with cash and sexual favors to turn a blind eye when a fresh crop of young foreign girls turns up on the street corner.

Failure to recognize how deeply human trafficking depends upon bribery and corruption for its existence undermines efforts to combat trafficking in people. The globalization of finance and rapid communications technology have made it easier to launder money, spread corruption and grow organized crime.

Their spread goes hand in hand with the global slave trade, where a girl from the United States can end up in a brothel in Japan. Supplying the sex industry with trafficked women is vastly more profitable than drug smuggling or the arms trade because a woman's body can be sold multiple times. No surprise then that about 55 percent of trafficked people are women and girls and most of them are forced into prostitution, the ILO estimates in its June 2012 report. The bigger the dollars earned the more alluring it is to grow the trade, and the more cash criminals have to lure corrupt government officials into facilitating their enterprise.

Thursday is World Anti-Slavery Day. There is no better time to say: enough is enough.

Human trafficking and slavery depend on corruption, which depends on cash. Cutting off the global flow of money that is essential to greasing palms of corrupt officials would go a long way toward ending this barbarity. How to achieve that is another story.

Monique Villa is the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, organizers of the TrustWomen conference along with the International Herald Tribune.