What "Human Trafficking" Really Means

J.J. Gould at The Atlantic opens this long, thorough, and balanced article by telling the stories of Ko Lin, a Burmese man who spent months in forced labor, and Ma Moe—also from Burma—who narrowly escaped being sold as a “wife” after being tricked with the story of a job in China.

There’s a plain-language word for the horror stories that Ko Lin and Ma Moe have survived, as anachronistic as it might sound: slavery. Contemporary slavery is real, and it’s terribly common—here in Burma, across Southeast Asia, and around the world.

I suppose I understand why we use the word “trafficking” now—it’s less inflammatory and more clinical, which makes it seem less judgmental. And the U.S. government hates making value judgments. Generally, though, I favor using straightforward language whenever possible, and by tacitly deprecating “slavery” we cede a moral high ground that could fuel the outrage needed to enact change.

One consequence of this is that when people apply the idea of slavery to current events, they tend to think of it as an analogy. That is, they tend to use the word to dramatize conditions that may be exploitive—e.g., terrible wages or toxic working environments – but that we’d never on their own call “slavery” if the kind of forced labor we used to call “slavery” still existed.

You’d think I would tire of saying this, but words are important.