Brooklyn Law Review


Rana M. Jaleel


This article asks a deceptively straightforward question: What is the wrong of human trafficking? If the answer seems obvious, a closer look at anti-trafficking law reveals a doctrinal crisis. Human trafficking law has traditionally concerned itself with movement and how compelled or chosen migration estranges vulnerable people from the locales, customs, and resources that might otherwise shield them from exploitation. According to the U.S. State Department, however, movement is no longer a central element of human trafficking. Instead, “many forms of enslavement” are thought to comprise the core of the crime. The revocation of the movement requirement and the equation of human trafficking with slavery have made an elusive target of human trafficking’s wrong, dissolving distinctions between slavery and forced labor, as well as less extreme exploitation prohibited by anti-trafficking law. Moreover, human trafficking is increasingly understood along a spectrum of migrant labor abuses—one that stresses how the cumulative impact of exploitative work conditions can amount to human trafficking.

With these reformulations in mind, this article analyzes the wrong of human trafficking through what it calls the new low-wage/vulnerable labor paradigm. In this account, human trafficking is wrong because it exploits worker vulnerability—regardless of migrant status—by forcing, coercing, or deceiving people into performing work, including commercial sex acts, under intolerable, illicit, or degrading conditions. Conceptualizing the wrong of human trafficking through the new low-wage/vulnerable labor paradigm captures the full range of offenses proscribed by human trafficking law. It also guards against the conceptual collapse of human trafficking and related legal terms by fostering principled discussion over where we now want to draw the line between exploitation of all stripes and ownership that amounts to slavery.