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Human Trafficking and the Dignity of Work

Andrea Vicini, SJ - Brett O'Neill, SJ : La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Jan 24th 2020

The campaign against human trafficking is one of the most important and urgent global social responsibilities of our time. In order to deal with the exploitation and violence on which trafficking depends and which it promotes, it is necessary to examine the phenomenon of coercive labor and other dehumanizing working conditions.

In response to human trafficking in all its forms, Pope Francis has appealed to all people of good will for a “mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself,” urging us “not to become accomplices,” but instead to “forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity.”[1]

To strengthen its mobilization against trafficking and to eliminate all forms of exploitation, the entire Catholic Church responds with a firm commitment to the appeal of Pope Francis, making use of its rich tradition of social teaching. This commitment is particularly important today as the anti-trafficking movement is facing some criticism on account of the imprecise ways in which this complex phenomenon is defined. As Pope Francis is organizing an important event for 2020 to examine economic dynamics, the consideration of recent magisterial documents on the theme of work allows us to reflect on this phenomenon, identifying appropriate ways to define and combat it.

A global concern

Since the turn of the millennium we have seen an increasing global mobilization against human trafficking. The highlight was the adoption in 2000 of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC)[2] and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (“Trafficking Protocol”).[3] This Convention was born out of international concerns over border integrity, given increasing irregular immigration and transnational crime, global phenomena that affect the quality of life and working conditions of many people of all ages.

Since then, many organizations – governmental and non-governmental – have been active in helping victims of trafficking and intervening at a systemic level against any structure that facilitates and perpetuates it. Recently, the UN-sponsored Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) was adopted, with the aim of increasing international cooperation in dealing with migration flows between source and destination countries. Although the document lacks the support of key nations, it was approved in December, 2018, by many UN member states. One of the objectives of the Global Compact on Migration is to prevent, combat and eradicate human trafficking.[4]

In our era, transnational human trafficking is probably fueled by two contradictory global dynamics: on the one hand, the free movement of goods and capital across borders, which characterizes the liberalization of global trade; on the other hand, the simultaneous tightening of border controls, which increases obstacles to labor migration. These two global dynamics may have facilitated the increase in irregular migration and human trafficking as a means of meeting the growing needs of the labor market. As a result, organized crime is involved in migration flows and exploits many vulnerable people, encouraging irregular border crossings.

In the sphere of labor, trafficking is present in many ways: from low-skilled labor – for example, in urban, agricultural and industrial sectors – to sexual exploitation. Victims of trafficking are also often to be found in the fishing industry, on farms, in factories and wealthy households.

The Global Slavery Index, published by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, estimates that in 2016 40.3 million people were involved in some form of “modern slavery.”[5] This term includes human trafficking, both in the case of “forced labor” and in the case of arranged marriages. However, it is difficult to quantify precisely the amount of trafficking because it is a hidden and polymorphous reality. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the United States Department of State provide more limited figures, based on the victims who have been identified. From 2003 to 2016, UNODC recorded 225,000 victims of trafficking,[6] while in 2018 the US State Department identified 85,613 victims globally.[7]

Catholic efforts against human trafficking

In 2002, addressing an International Conference on “Slavery in the 21st Century,” Saint John Paul II made one of the first papal interventions concerning “human trafficking.” He explicitly associated the term “human trafficking” with the various practices identified by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council that threaten human dignity: “slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, and disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons.”[8] For the Council Fathers, these practices are “a supreme dishonor to the Creator.”[9] Previously, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II himself had defined these social ills as “intrinsically evil,” inasmuch as they “radically contradict the good of the person”[10] made in the image of God.

The Catholic Church has taken a leading role in the contemporary movement to combat human trafficking. In particular, many women religious are displaying great dedication, ability and courage, and their admirable efforts are saving many victims, as well as raising awareness and stimulating international commitment. See. for example, in the last 10 years, the international network Talitha kum.[11] At the same time, the Holy See has given increasing attention to this tragic problem, to the point that human trafficking is now “one of the defining priorities” of the papacy of Francis: “a particular priority of the diplomatic work of the Holy See and an urgent pastoral task  of the Catholic Church.”[12]

Trafficking is a constant theme in the teaching of Pope Francis. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he expressed his concern for “those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking.”[13] In a painful tone, he wrote: “How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: ‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen 4:9)”[14]. In the encyclical Laudato Si’, the pope spoke of the “culture of relativism,” which reduces other people to mere objects, subjecting human beings to the impersonal forces of the market: “In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking?”[15]

In 2013, in a speech to the newly-accredited ambassadors to the Holy See, Pope Francis condemned the commodification of people and stated: “The human person ought never to be sold or bought as if he or she were a commodity. Whoever uses human persons in this way and exploits them, even if indirectly, becomes an accomplice of this injustice.”[16] In 2014, addressing the participants inan International Conference on Trafficking organized by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the pope described trafficking as “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”[17]

In his message for the 2015 World Day of Peace, Francis highlighted the incongruence of the fact that, despite the numerous international agreements adopted, “millions of people today – children, men and women of all ages – are deprived of freedom and forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.”[18] For the pope, the root cause of this is the corruption of sin, which distances humanity “from our Creator and our neighbors” in such a way that we reject the humanity of others.[19] Francis also stressed that the world suffers from a “globalization of indifference.” Those who do not pay attention to the needs of others become “accomplices of this evil.” In order to face it, the pontiff called for a “mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”[20]

In 2014 the Holy See promoted the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery, signed by Pope Francis and representatives of world religions gathered in the Vatican.[21] In addition, at the United Nations, it contributed to the negotiations on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking.[22] The Vatican State collaborates with police forces through the Santa Marta group, which promotes cooperation between the local Churches and police forces.[23] Finally, the research of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences also aims to eliminate slavery and trafficking, as Pope Francis has been calling for since 2013.

In recent international forums on human trafficking the Holy See has stressed the importance not only of responding to dramatic cases, but also of addressing the root causes of this phenomenon. Archbishop Bernardito Auza, apostolic nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, declared: “there is a huge need for honesty and commitment with regard to examining and addressing the demand that fosters trafficking, especially the economic realities and avarice that catalyze labor trafficking and sexual exploitation that dehumanize and commodify other persons as mere objects of gratification. We must become far more practical, even ruthless, in addressing not just the evil fruit but also the roots of the problem. And this requires, honestly, the courage to have ethical conversations in a relativist age and to name forthrightly the harmful consequences, to subjects, victims and society as a whole, from addiction to money or to sex.”[24] These words, which call for a serious reflection on the structural causes of trafficking, confirm the recent diplomatic efforts of the Holy See.[25]

In January 2019, the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development of the Holy See published its Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking to better coordinate the work of the Church in supporting the victims of human trafficking.[26] In his speech to a conference dedicated to the implementation of this document, Pope Francis observed that “Trafficking profoundly disfigures the humanity of the victim, offending his or her freedom and dignity. Yet at the same time, it dehumanizes those who carry it out, denying them access to ‘life in abundance.’ Finally, trafficking seriously damages humanity as a whole, tearing apart the human family as well as the Body of Christ.”[27]

Hence, in an admirable and diverse way, the Catholic Church has invested and is investing much energy in the fight against human trafficking and continues to draw global attention to this tragedy. At the same time, the Catholic voice and commitment could be further amplified and strengthened, issuing pronouncements and making commitments in a more explicit and profound way in the tradition of Catholic social thought, especially as it applies to human labor. Such an approach is promising, because it allows the renewal of the many ecclesial efforts and contributes to further articulating both the rhetoric and the actions aimed at eradicating human trafficking in the international arena, where difficulties have emerged in defining precisely its various aspects, with a consequent attenuation of the commitment to eliminate it completely.

Different definitions

UNTOC’s “Trafficking Protocol” provides the basic definition of this phenomenon under international law: trafficking in persons means “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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 sums of money or benefits to obtain 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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”[28]

In a comprehensive way, this definition includes the multiple circumstances that could be considered forms of human trafficking. In particular, it expresses the original concerns about the criminal movements of trafficked persons across borders, calling for the coordination of law enforcement agencies in different jurisdictions. At the same time, in examining the phenomenon of trafficking, it recognizes the margin of interpretation in individual states.

In recent years, however, both the reality of trafficking and the ways in which it is defined have changed. In international politics and academic discourse, it now includes a wide range of coercive and exploitative practices, even where there has been no movement of people across borders.

In 2019, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report clarified that “a victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition,” a position held since 2004.[29] This means that “human trafficking” can encompass a broad range of circumstances that involve some form of exploitation: slave-labor, debt-bondage, forced prostitution, child labor and underpaid migrant labor.

In recent years, the movement against this phenomenon has come under criticism from a number of commentators from different disciplines, who stress the difficulty of defining trafficking in an inclusive and comprehensive way.[30] These criticisms stem from the fear that the complex phenomenon of labor exploitation will be oversimplified, as will the variety of ways in which the term “trafficking” is used today by both activists and governments.

A number of critics have warned against the conflation of human trafficking with “modern slavery,” as many organizations and states today regard human trafficking as synonymous with “slavery.” Calling human trafficking “modern slavery” can be a useful rhetorical strategy to catalyze public moral outrage. However, this strategy can become problematic if it is the only way to define trafficking, because it can limit efforts to eradicate slavery as an extreme form of human servitude. In addition, such identification risks not enhancing the capacity for moral action (albeit limited) that can still be exercised by the victims of trafficking.

Consequently, the ambiguity and inconsistent use of the term “trafficking” has required a multi-year research project by UNODC, to better clarify the international legal definition. This project examined the many ways in which trafficking is defined from country to country, concluding that “the parameters for defining ‘trafficking’ have not yet been definitively established.”[31]

An imprecise definition of trafficking complicates any effective global response to coercive labor exploitation practices. In addition, efforts to combat this phenomenon can become thereby easy targets for criticism, undermining efforts to eliminate all types of trafficking. Finally, such imprecision may hinder adequate responses. If human trafficking is defined in too simplistic and general a way, the solutions adopted to deal with it can be limited to the isolated rescue of victims, unfortunately often only to return them to the same social and labor conditions that gave rise to their exploitation.

At the same time, a broad and inclusive definition can facilitate efforts to implement the necessary structural changes in production and market logic, so that demand dynamics that facilitate labor exploitation can be critically considered in the global marketplace. Ultimately, we need a structural conversion that promotes the good of the human person as the highest priority in the organization of labor.

The dignity of work in Catholic Social Doctrine

In the light of contemporary criticism of the anti-trafficking movement, it is important that the Catholic Church clearly shows what it means by “human trafficking.” If this also concerns to a large extent corruption and the perversion of labor, then the rich contribution of the Church’s social teaching on this subject is enlightening.

In Laborem Exercens, the last encyclical dedicated in a specific way to work, Saint John Paul II, to address current concerns, deepened the teaching of Pope Leo XIII on the theme of work as he had expressed it in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.[32] For Saint John Paul II, work is a “fundamental dimension” of human existence, and is sanctified by Christ’s own participation in the toil of labor at the carpenter’s bench.[33] The value of human work, therefore, is not “first of all the kind of work being done but the fact that the one doing it is a person.”[34] Such dignity is undermined when human persons are regarded as bargaining chips rather than as workers, as ends in themselves.

For Saint John Paul II, human labor carries a twofold tension: it involves toil and wear on the person, yet it also aids human self-realization. He affirmed that “work is a good thing for man – it is a good for his humanity – because through work man […] achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a certain sense, ‘becomes more of a human being.’“[35] In their work people realize their dignity, their being created in the image and likeness of God. Moreover, human work is participation in the ongoing creative work of God, and with it people become cooperators and co-creators at the service of the common good.[36]

Benedict XVI reiterated this idea in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, rejecting any tendency to consider workers – especially migrants – “as a commodity or a mere workforce. They must not, therefore, be treated like any other factor of production.”[37] For Benedict XVI, the “dignity of human work” implies “work which, in every society, is the expression of the essential dignity of every man and woman: work chosen freely, which effectively associates workers, men and women, with the development of their community.”[38]

In the same way, in Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis states that “it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”[39] Work is therefore a privileged expression of human freedom; it allows us to share our creativity and assume our responsibilities, protecting the earth’s resources and promoting the good of humanity.

In the light of these teachings on human work, we can say that trafficking offends human dignity not only because it considers the person as a mere commodity for exchange, but also because it frustrates personal and social self-realization. Considered as commodities, trafficked persons are deprived of the ability and opportunity to use their creativity and ingenuity to contribute to the good of human society. In many cases, it is precisely the nature of the work that people are forced to undertake that is damaging to their dignity. This is an injury which, especially in the case of women and children, goes as far as sexual exploitation. It violates all the aspects of the person (physical, relational and spiritual) and profoundly, and sometimes indelibly, undermines human dignity, preventing us from cooperating in God’s ongoing creative action. In this regard, pastoral reflection would also be important.

How to intervene

Human trafficking damages the dignity of both the trafficked person and the trafficker, and it frustrates the humanizing dimension of work, which should contribute to the ongoing realization of the identity of every human being, created in the image and likeness of God. Moreover, trafficking corrupts and perverts society, introducing and promoting structures of exploitation that, for the sake of economic success, depend on the labor of the victims.

Without denying the need and urgency to work to protect every victim of trafficking, we now need effective, timely and long-term structural interventions. Saving these people also requires judging and transforming the economic and market dynamics that promote this tragic phenomenon. Furthermore, the “rescue” of victims of trafficking must also include the promotion of their capacity for moral action, engaging with them and helping each of them to find forms and conditions of labor that promote their human dignity in an integral manner.

Finally, responding to human trafficking in an authentic, integral and coherent manner requires a change in the economic demands that perpetuate these forms of exploitation. It requires tackling the structural and sinful causes of our global dependence on industries that use trafficked humans. It requires an evangelization of our global economic system, so that the dignity of each person is respected in every type of work.

Therefore, we look forward with confidence to the forthcoming initiatives of Pope Francis that aim to foster further reflection and engagement to promote work in just ways, protecting every worker and fostering the common good worldwide. Those who are victims of trafficking must be guaranteed reasons to hope, concrete commitments for a human future and actions that promote justice in every field of work.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 01 art. 4, 0120: 10.32009/22072446.0120.4

[1]. Francis, “Message for the celebration of the 48th World Day of Peace: ‘No longer slaves but brothers’ (January 1, 2015)”, No. 6, in This site hosts all the texts of the Second Vatican Council and of the popes that are mentioned below.

[2]. See

[3]. Cf. “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” (became effective on December 25, 2003), in United Nations Treaty Series Online (

[4]. Cf. United Nations, ‘Final Draft: Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’, in Cfr M. Czerny, “The Global Compact for Migration” in Civ. Catt. En. 2018,

[5]. Cf. Walk Free Foundation, “2018 Global Slavery Index” in

[6].    Cf. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018” in

[7].    Cf. U.S. Department of State, “2019 Trafficking in Persons Report”, 38, in

[8] .   John Paul II, S., “Letter to Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on the occasion of the International Conference on the theme: ‘Slavery in the 21st Century: The Dimension of Human Rights in Trafficking in Persons’” (May 15, 2002).

[9] .   Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, No. 27.

[10].   John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (August 6, 1993), n. 80.

[11].   See

[12].   B. Auza, “The Holy See and The Fight Against Human Trafficking” February 23, 2017, in

[13].   Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, No. 211.

[14].   Ibid.

[15].   Id., Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (May 24, 2015), No. 123.

[16].   Id. “Speech to a group of new ambassadors on the occasion of the presentation of letters of credence” (December 12, 2013).

[17].   Id. “Speech to participants at the International Conference on Trafficking in Human Persons” (April 10, 2014).

[18].   Id. “No more slaves but brothers”, op. cit., No. 3.

[19].   Ibid., No. 4.

[20].   Ibid., No. 6.

[21].   See “Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery” (December 4, 2014), at

[22].   Cf. B. Auza, “General Statement at the opening session of the third round of the intergovernmental negotiations on the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” New York, April 3, 2018, in

[23].   See

[24].   B. Auza, “Practical Solutions to Eradicate Human Trafficking”, November 9, 2018, in

[25].   Cf. Id., “Survivor-Centered Approach To Trafficking In Persons”, New York, June 23, 2017, in; P. R. Gallagher, “High-Level Meeting On UN Global Plan Of Action To Combat Trafficking In Persons”, New York, September 27-28, 2017, in

[26].   See Department for the Service of Integral Human Development: Migrants and Refugees Section, Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking (2019), at

[27].   Francis, “Address to the Participants of the International Conference on Trafficking in Persons” (April 11, 2019).

[28].   “UNTOC Trafficking Protocol, Article 3.

[29].   U. S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, 2019), 5.

[30].   For critical opinions see P. Kotiswaran (ed.), Revisiting the Law and Governance of Trafficking, Forced Labor and Modern Slavery, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017; J. A. Chuang, “Exploitation Creep and the Unmaking of Human Trafficking Law” in The American Journal of International Law 108 (2014) 609-649.

[31].   Unodc, “Issue Paper on the International Legal Definition of Trafficking in Persons” (2018), in

[32].   Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891); John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens (LE) (September 14, 1981), No. 3.

[33].   See LE 4.

[34].   LE 6.

[35].   LE 9.

[36].   See LE 25.

[37].   Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009), No. 62.

[38].   Ibid., 63.

[39].   Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, No. 192.

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angel angel
on 14/1/20
Excellent article Congratulations.
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