Human Trafficking – Why Rights Matter

“Tina” was a child abuse survivor who left her home at the first opportunity with a man who was good to her.


Soon this man turned abusive and forced her to work as a sex worker for his profit. She was arrested by the police and as a consequence, her children were taken away from her.

“Riya” was a young woman hired to work as a maid by an Indian family in the U.S. Once here, the family forced her to live in a closet and beat her if she disobeyed their orders. She was finally able to escape – but when she sought help from the authorities, she was held in a mandatory shelter for questioning.

“Carlos” was a new father seeking to provide for his children in Mexico, and met a farm owner who promised a well-paying job if he paid a recruitment fee. Once in the U.S., he was forced to work long hours for little pay, and his debt just increased. He did not know when he would see his family again.

These are stories of human trafficking: people who were forced or coerced into working in inhumane conditions, in a climate of fear. Many think of human trafficking as occurring in faraway lands, but stories like those above can be found in many American workplaces: agriculture, brothels, restaurants, private homes, hotels, salons and factories. With the backing of the Oak Foundation, NEO Philanthropy has launched a new Fund to address this urgent issue.

Human Rights Approach

Although most agree that human trafficking is an abomination, not everyone agrees on how to end it. NEO Philanthropy embraces a strategy known as the “human rights approach.” We believe it is important to look at root causes of trafficking, which include limited access to fair work and migration options. Trafficking victims are most often people who suffer from other oppressions or discrimination, work in informal or low income sectors where labor protections are not enforced or are legally excluded from rights because of their status. Unfortunately, even those who escape and survive this horrible experience are not always well-treated or respected, as the stories above illustrate. We see trafficking occurring at the far end of a spectrum of exploitation, as a result of the erosion of human rights.

What can we do to prevent human trafficking and help its survivors? The “human rights approach” is perhaps best understood by looking at the work of our grantees. NEO supports a cadre of 12 innovative and dedicated organizations, some of whom have been working with trafficking survivors for decades.

How We Are Making a Difference

Our grantees believe government can help end trafficking by passing laws that promote the rights of vulnerable populations.  For example, Centro de los Derechos Del Migrante and Justice In Motion advocate for legal reform to U.S. laws that allow industries to recruit and exploit migrant workers through the use of temporary visas.

Our grantees believe the people most affected by human trafficking should lead the movement. Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking trains survivors of trafficking to become policy advocates, educators and service providers. The National Domestic Worker Alliance organizes domestic workers who have survived trafficking to lead policy campaigns and conduct outreach to other potential victims.

Our grantees believe trafficking survivors are entitled to quality legal and social services that center their self-determination. Safe Horizon provides holistic services to survivors and leads policy efforts to increase funding for such services.  The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center expands access to pro bono attorneys willing to represent survivors for free, so survivors can be compensated for lost wages and emotional damages in court.

Our grantees believe all workers are entitled to respect and dignity. The Sex Workers Project delivers non-judgmental services to sex workers, working to decrease criminalization, marginalization and stigma, which in turn prevents human trafficking.

Finally, our grantees reach for systemic solutions to the causes of trafficking. The Fair Foods Standards Council is transforming the farm industry in Florida, formerly rife with trafficking. Under the Fair Food Program, farmworkers developed a code to improve working conditions and wages, and contract directly with produce buyers to only buy from farms who follow this code.

As the Freedom Network says, “At its core, the crime of trafficking is a violation of an individual’s basic rights and personal freedom. Thus, we believe that a rights-based approach is fundamental to combating human trafficking and ensuring justice for trafficked persons.” On Human Trafficking Awareness Day, we are honored to support organizations that are fighting the worst forms of exploitation using an approach that lifts all boats, and leads to broader justice for all.

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