Child trafficking — the buying and selling of children for the purpose of exploitation — is one of the most profitable industries in the world. Annual revenues for child trafficking and forced labor total an estimated $39 billion globally. To place that number in perspective, the trafficking of children generates more revenue every year than the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB combined. This is a shockingly high figure, and it begs the question: Where does all of this money come from?
As a business, child trafficking operates on the same principles as the rest of the market: supply and demand. If demand remains at a certain level or increases, then there will be attempts to deliver a corresponding supply. There is currently an incredibly high demand for exploited children, both for sex and labor. Consumers play a large part in maintaining that demand, which means we also have the power to curb it.
Labor exploitation accounts for approximately two-thirds of the $39 billion child trafficking industry, and consumers contribute to the demand for labor exploitation with our daily purchases. The cotton in our clothes, sheets and towels, for example, is considered a worst offender when it comes to child trafficking.
Cotton-based clothing production essentially consists of 5 steps: planting, harvesting, ginning, spinning, and trimming – and trafficking is present at every step along the way. In some places, it is harvested by children as young as 5 working 16-hour days.
Consumers play a large part in creating the demand for child trafficking: That means we have the power to stop it
Our increasingly globalized economy makes it difficult to trace many of our consumer products to their source, but it also makes it all the more important to do so. When we demand cheap goods, companies look for ways to reduce retail prices, and have historically prioritized their profit margins over ethical sourcing. As such, they may source from farmers and manufacturers that engage in labor trafficking.
By calling on companies to exhibit a transparent, ethical supply chain, we can create a demand for ethically sourced products
Our favorite brands may not intentionally engage in child trafficking, but there is little economic incentive for them to actively avoid it. That is where we come in. By shifting our consumption patterns and calling on companies to exhibit a transparent, ethical supply chain, we can effectively create a demand for ethically sourced products. The more we shift our consumption, the less we contribute to that $39 billion global child trafficking trade.
As long as the demand for cheap goods remains high, traffickers will prey upon vulnerable children to make a profit. It’s our job to expand the demand for ethically sourced products, and to call on our elected officials to meaningfully attack the issue of child trafficking.
- Where was your shirt made? Your pants? Check your label and do some research on where your clothing comes from. Take this a step further by setting a New Year’s resolution to only buy secondhand or ethically sourced clothing.
- Consult the U.S. Department of Labor's list of products that are at high risk of utilizing child and forced labor.
- Challenge yourself to buy ethically sourced food. A Fair Trade certification verifies that the supply chain is exploitation-free. Start by purchasing one item (chocolate, coffee, tea) and work up from there.
- Get your friends involved by hosting a Fair Trade Dinner Party.
- Ask to have the National Human Trafficking Hotline posted in shops, restaurants and schools in your area.
- Learn more about UNICEF USA's End Trafficking Project and how to spot the signs of child trafficking.
- Participate in Freedom Day on February 1st by raising awareness about child trafficking on social media and ask your Senator to co-sponsor the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Be sure to use the hashtag #EndTrafficking and tag @UNICEFUSA in your posts.
Eitan Peled is a Global Citizen Fellow with the UNICEF USA End Trafficking Project.
Top photo: Reshmi, 12, worked in a cotton field in Karnatarka, India until a program implemented in conjunction with UNICEF helped her and other child laborers enroll in school. © UNICEF/UNI88064/Crouch