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Human Trafficking Stories
from Boston to Bangkok

Photo | 承燁 韓 

Sex Trafficking from
Bangkok to Boston

Photo |  承燁 韓

WGBH Boston Public Radio
By Phillip Martin

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Special Report: Human Trafficking
"Underground Trade: From Boston to Bangkok" is a WGBH eight-part investigation by Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Phillip Martin into human trafficking, from East Asia to New York to New England. ​ 

Part 7:
Modern-Day Slavery in America


​WGBH Investigations reports: Human trafficking isn't just about transporting people from one place to another. It is also about exploitation. Still, there are hundreds of established trafficking routes used to transport human beings for reasons that include not only forced prostitution but also uncompensated labor. The path from Southeast Asia through Bangkok, and from there to points worldwide, is a principal avenue. Many victims eventually end up in the United States working in nail salons and Chinatown kitchens, massage parlors, and on farms. In many cases, labor and sex trafficking go hand-in-hand. 


Listen to the broadcast, "Modern-Day Slavery in American" at WGBH Boston Public Radio. 


Coming to America, Forced to Work

For Little or No Pay


They are called snakeheads in East Asia, says WGBH Radio investigative reporter Phillip Martin in “Human Trafficking: Modern-Day Slavery in America,” part seven of an eight-part broadcast about human trafficking and modern-day slavery from Boston to Bangkok. In Mexico, he says, they are called coyotes. What Martin is referring to are neither fish nor mammals, but people who, for a fee, facilitate the illegal movement of persons from one place to another over land, by sea, or by air for the purpose of exploiting them.


In Martin’s piece, Chinese national Ming-Wei tells him how in 1993, when she was 19 years old and seeking new opportunities, she  turned to snakeheads to help her travel to the United States. The snakeheads, Ming-Wei claims, gave her a fake passport and arranged for her air travel from China to Bangkok, Thailand, and eventually to New York’s JFK Airport in Queens. Once Ming-Wei boarded the plane, a man took the fake passport and told her to ask for religious asylum once she arrived in New York; she did as she was told. After she was given asylum and cleared by immigration in New York, another man picked her up from the airport. Since then, she says, she’s been forcibly transported around the country to work in restaurants owned by the same wealthy Chinese family.


Martin reports that Ming-Wei works each day from eight in the morning to 1 a.m. the following morning for two weeks straight, after which she gets one day off. Her pay is sometimes less than $100 a month, he says, and her debt to the snakeheads keeps growing. Nearly twenty years after the snakeheads helped her get to JFK Airport, Ming-Wei says she is still trying to pay off her fraudulent travel charges, which continue to grow.


Restaurants in the United States aren’t the only workplaces where men and women can be found working in exploitative conditions. Nail salons and massage parlors, some of which also act as fronts for prostitution, and farmlands owned by American agribusiness have also been linked to modern-day slavery.


Ming-Wei and others like her are victims of “forced labor,” defined by the U.S. Trafficking in Victims Protection Act as a crime of “trafficking in persons” or “human trafficking.”


Understanding Forced Labor & Human Trafficking 


The International Labour Organization (ILO) believes there are far more victims of forced labor in the private sector around the world (14.2 million) than there are victims of sexual exploitation (4.5 million). (See chart below, right.)

Though the estimated number of victims of forced labor is far greater than the number of victims thought to be enslaved in sexually exploitative situations, the rate of global convictions for forced labor is much lower than convictions for sex trafficking according to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Person’s Report (see chart below left). 


The 2012 TIP Report also indicates that a total 41,210 victims of human trafficking were identified internationally in 2011. This figure provides no breakdown of what types of trafficking the victims were involved in (i.e., forced labor, women forced into sex work, often referred to as sex trafficking, etc.). Moreover, 41,201 rescued victims is tiny when compared to the ILO’s total estimate of 21 million victims of trafficking worldwide. (See charts below.)

History of Key
 Slavery & Human Trafficking Legislation 

If it seems like we’re comparing apples to oranges in these charts, it’s because of the different terminology used by the various leading counter-trafficking organizations.


“Forced labor” is the umbrella term the International Labour Organization (ILO) uses for “trafficking in persons,” “slavery,” “practices similar to slavery,” and more. The term “trafficking in persons,” meanwhile, is used by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, though both still use the phrase "human trafficking" as well. These terms also refer to the commonly used phrases "sex trafficking,” “modern slavery,” “modern-day slavery,” “new slavery,” and “contemporary slavery.”


This grab-bag choice of terminology has resulted in widespread confusion about which meaning should be applied to which phrases. Adding to the confusion is disagreement about whether or not there should be any differentiation between forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, or whether, in fact, all prostitution is, or is not, when economic and other realities are considered, commercial sexual exploitation.


American University Professor Ann Jordan in her article “Slavery, Forced Labor, Debt Bondage, and Human Trafficking: From Conceptual Confusion to Targeted Solutions” points out that the ILO has said their differentiation of the two should not “imply that coercive sexual exploitation does not constitute forced labour.”


The reason for the various terminology used by today’s anti-trafficking organizations stems, in part, from this discussion about how to define forced labor and sexual exploitation for commercial purposes, and, says Kevin Bales, socio-economist and co-founder of Free the Slaves, from the notion that whatever is happening today that looks like slavery can’t be slavery because it was abolished long ago.


Over the previous two centuries, anti-trafficking and slavery legislation was conceived following these discussions and debates, with key legal instruments outlined below.


Learn more about the various forms of slavery and other related terms in this glossary from Free the Slaves. 

​Part 1 : Hiding in Plain Sight

2: The Route Through Queens

3 The Business of Trafficking

4 One Town In Thailand

5Taken Into China

6 Trading in Shame
7  : Modern-Day Slavery in America
8 : Human Trafficking: What Now?


Special Report: Human Trafficking Underground Trade: From Boston to Bangkok is an eight-part investigation into human trafficking from East Asia to the Northeast Corridor of the United States by
Phillip Martin, senior investigative reporter at WGBH Boston Public Radio and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

The WGBH investigation was done in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists, the Ford Foundation, and the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. 

​Claire Pavlik Purgus, Schuster Institute managing editor, conceptualized, designed and edited this site which provides supporting documentation and context for  WGBH Radio's human trafficking investigation, "Underground Trade: From Boston to Bangkok" and

PBS American Experience's

"The Abolitionists."

Sophie Elsner, Schuster Institute research editor, supervised research by Brandeis students who work as Research Assistants at the Schuster Institute.

More Schuster Institute


Students who contributed research:

Sidra Ahmed

David Altman

Damiana Andonova

Simon Cramer

Lydia Emmanouilidou

Dafna Fine

Ariel Glickman

Shafaq Hasan

Elly Kalfus

Lindi Li
Alisa Partlan

Avi Snyder
Andrew Wingens
Madeline Ziff

Human trafficking routes in and around Thailand, which is considered a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking by the U.S. Department of State's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Source: Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand

Human trafficking is an “awful term, a convoluted euphemism... the real issue
is slavery.”

             —Nick Kristof, columnust,
             The New York Times

“If you look at an article in Arizona about ‘human trafficking,’ they mean alien smuggling. If you look at an article that is written in Kansas City or Naples, Florida or New York and you see ‘human trafficking,’ they mean slavery. It begs the question to whether it is actually a good term or not.”

         Luis CdBaca, Ambassador-At-

              Large, Office to Monitor and

              Combat Trafficking in Persons,

              U.S. State Department

Key Anti-Slavery and Anti-Trafficking Laws




In 1807, Britain and the United States enacted legislation abolishing the contemporary slave trade, which eliminated the international trade and forced labor of tens of millions of Africans. (Despite this legislation, slavery within the United States remained legal until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.) Other countries then followed suit with their own laws abolishing slavery to the point where today, slavery is illegal everywhere.


1901, 1904, 1910


Nearly a century after the first abolition of slavery laws, the term “white slavery,” which referred exclusively to the abduction and forceful movement of white women and girls into prostitution, came into use. Says Bales, “White slavery was a huge issue before WW1, and while some have called it a 'moral panic' I think it was likely widespread slavery given the very high levels of corruption prior to the progressive reforms. Note, though, that the term was still slavery, albeit 'White Slavery.'”


The 1901,1904, and 1910 "International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic" grew out of this new awareness and concern about white women and girls being forced into commercial sexual exploitation.


Learn more about “white slavery”:

“Loose Women or Lost Women” by Jo Doezema, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex 

“Short History of Trafficking in Persons” by Kristiina Kangaspunta, Deputy Director, UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute 




In 1921, the League of Nations ratified the 1910 “Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade,” but added children to its scope and changed the title to “International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children.”  


At this point, says Bales, the words “traffic” and “trafficking” entered the anti-slavery vocabulary, and slavery terminology, at least in English, shifted to an emphasis on trafficking. 


1926, 1956 Slavery Convention


The 1926 Slavery Convention, also known as the “Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery,” was an international treaty signed by the League of Nations. This treaty was further defined and adopted by the United Nations in 1956.  



1930 Forced Labor Convention


The Forced Labor Convention was one of eight fundamental conventions adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO). From the ILO’s inception, its mandate has been labor rights. It wasn’t until their 2001 “Stopping Forced Labour” Global Report that the ILO introduced the term “slavery” and other practices similar to slavery into their reporting and scope.


1949, 1951


After its inception following World War II, the United Nations continued to advance the anti-trafficking legislation set forward by its predecessor, the League of Nations. The UN expanded the League’s 1921 “Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children” with a resolution they called the “Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.” While the resolution magnified the original legislation to include all persons, and not simply women and girls, its scope was still centered on “prostitution” and the “traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution.”


“Then we have the Cold War period,” says Bales, “where no one talked about slavery except in completely politicized terms. Nothing happened in international law or the UN concerning slavery during the Cold War. A deadlock existed because of differing perspectives about slavery in the East and West. The East said ‘slavery can only exist under capitalism.' The West said 'your system is one of slavery to the state’.


“When the Cold War ended was when terminology started to get really confusing,” continues Bales. “It's 1990 and 'slavery' has been relegated to the past—gone since the 19th century is the common view—so what do we call this movement of Eastern Europeans (white women mostly) into forced prostitution? Ah! That must be ‘traffic in women,’ that's… ‘human trafficking.’ Since the consensus was that slavery didn’t exist anymore, this phenomenon had to be something else. It must be trafficking.”


2000 (passed into law in 2003)


The United Nations “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children,” introduced in 2000, is specific to “trafficking in persons” and, says Bales, “led to the terrible mess which defined slavery as a subset of trafficking.” The legislation continued the traditional emphasis of women and children as a group that warrants special attention and who are forced into commercial sexual exploitation. 


(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;


To date, there are 117 signatories and 159 parties to this Trafficking Protocol. The international law enforcement agency INTERPOL, the Council of Europe, the Arab League, the International Organization for Migration, and many others have used language from the UN’s Trafficking Protocol in their own definitions of human trafficking, according to Professors Michelle Madden Dempsey, Carolyn Holye, and Mary Bosworth, authors of “Defining Sex Trafficking in International and Domestic Law: Mind the Gaps” (2012, Emory International Law Review). But as Dempsey et al. also point out, UN member states have often revised the Protocol’s language when applying it to their own domestic criminal codes, making it narrower or broader according to each country’s unique circumstances and national concerns. 





In 2000, the United States passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act which, through several reauthorizations, is now known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). 


The TVPA defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:


      a. sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age;


      b. the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.


A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another in order for the crime to fall within these definitions.


The above list of major anti-trafficking and slavery laws and some of the history that surrounds them helps explain the myriad definitions and terms used by today’s anti-trafficking organizations and why confusion and disagreement over definitions remain.

From a legislative and legal point of view, laws criminalizing human trafficking (or trafficking in persons) are newer than those defining and abolishing slavery. Trafficking in persons laws have generally focused on the suppression of trafficking of women and children into forced commercial sexual exploitation. 



Why Human Trafficking Statistics Don’t Measure Up


Because of the various forms that slavery can take, and the varying legal definitions of slavery in different countries, collecting data on  international human trafficking convictions and victims is clearly a complicated task.


“What this means,” says Matt Friedman, veteran counter-trafficking activist and Chief Advisor to The Mekong Club, an association committed to removing slavery from the business supply chain in Asia, is that “many criminal acts related to human trafficking do get prosecuted, but using other criminal categories—soliciting, kidnapping, rape, murder, battery, fraud, etc. If these cases were included in the global human trafficking statistics, we’d see that many more cases we’d call ‘human trafficking’ are indeed getting prosecuted and are ending with convictions.”


And as for the 41,201 rescued victims in 2011, Friedman says that “a large number of victims find their own way out of their trafficking experience without any outside intervention. These are people who don’t show up in the statistics as being rescued because they have found their own way back to freedom.”

The News Media’s Role in Explaining Modern-Day Slavery


“Hidden in Plain Sight: The news media's role in exposing human trafficking” was a 2010 panel discussion jointly organized by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University,  the United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN), and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 

Exploitation + Confinement = Slavery


​The popular phrase “human trafficking” seems to imply that the greatest harm to trafficking victims occurs at the hands of their transporters. In his Trafficking 101 animated online resource, Matt Friedman explains why this notion is false.


“Transporters (and recruiters before them) are relatively minor players in the network of illegal trade in human beings. While they have a role,” Friedman says, “businesses that fuel their workforce with trafficked victims and maintain it through various means including abuse, threat of violence, or by withholding pay, should be the main focus of counter-trafficking efforts because this is where most of the human rights violations and exploitation occurs.”​

Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Parameters of Slavery


Learn more about the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery, a new foundational legal definition of slavery that Kevin Bales and others honed in 2012. 

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