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Spheres of Exploitation: Thwarting Actors Who Profit from Illegal Labor, Domestic Servitude, and Sex Work
January 2014

Spheres of Exploitation: Thwarting Actors Who Profit from Illegal Labor, Domestic Servitude, and Sex Work

Large-scale migration flows are too often exploited by “bad actors” for profitranging from criminals who exploit trafficked people to employers who do not meet legal hiring practices. Even consumers, who may not know the source of their goods and services, sometimes aid the exploitation of migrants. This report analyzes such exploitation in three spheres: the domestic care sector, the labor market, and the sex industry. Across all three, perpetrators are broadly motivated by the lure of high profits and low risks.

The report, part of a Transatlantic Council on Migration series on migration "bad actors," details several obstacles governments face in their efforts to weaken such actors: victims may be unwilling to report crimes, the crimes themselves fall into a gray area in which identification and prosecution are complex, and the leaders of criminal organizations often successfully protect themselves from enforcement efforts by implicating their foot soldiers and victims in illegal activity.

Policies to disrupt the business model of exploitation seek to increase risks and reduce profits for facilitators, and they may also aim to reduce the supply and demand of exploitable labor. Most policies carry risks and practical challenges. One of the main legal tools—anti-trafficking legislation—aims to increase the risks of severe exploitation, but low prosecution rates and trivial sentences reduce their utility as a deterrent. Measures that target employers also face several challenges, such as proving employer guilt and administering high-enough fines. Increasing subcontractors’ regulations, if successfully implemented, can raise standards across the board, but may also inadvertently lead to more severe exploitation (and more illegal immigration) if some operators are pushed underground. 

The report argues that one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement is that the focus on serious criminals and lawbreakers ignores those who operate on the edge of legality; the reality is that creative criminal organizations exploit legal routes wherever possible, sometimes flying under the radar of police. This situation often creates unexpected results. Some policies to encourage legal migration—like those that tie workers to a particular employer—can facilitate exploitative practices, while policies designed to reduce exploitation (such as licensing systems) might make some operators more likely to hire unauthorized workers.

Table of Contents 

I.  Introduction

II.  Definitions

A.  The Continuum of Exploitation

B.  A Typology of Exploitative Actors

III.  The Business Model of Exploitation

A.  The Profits Are High

B.  The Risks Are Relatively Low

C.  Policy Challenges

IV.  Policies to Tackle Exploitation

A.  Expanding Anti-Trafficking Legislation

B.  Labor Standards Enforcement

C.  Reducing Exploitability

D.  Addressing the Abuse of Legal Migrants

E.  Reducing Demand for Exploited Labor

V.  Conclusions