USC Study: Isolation From Tech Increases Vulnerability to Labor Trafficking

Given the amount of time some of us spend online, on social media and on messaging apps, the idea that technology can offer a source of comfort may seem obvious. The reverse might also be a no-brainer — that without technology, some people may feel isolated.

But what happens when you apply these understandings to the various circumstances surrounding human trafficking?

The lack of research on the relationship between technology and labor trafficking in particular pushed researchers at the Center for Communication Leadership & Policy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to examine this issue. The findings, recently released in a new report, have found that migrant workers — anyone who might leave their families and homes for an extended period of time for work — are more vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation when they are isolated from technology and social networks.


An outdoor market beneath a subway station in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Photo by Sonia Paul.

“There have been some studies on sex trafficking and technology, but almost nothing has been written on these issues as pertained to labor trafficking,” said Mark Latonero, the principal author of the study. And before the study began, much of the understanding on technology and labor trafficking came from different perceptions and narratives the researchers had been familiar with — but nothing with which they had concrete evidence to substantiate these claims.

“I’d heard many stories of cell phones being taken away form migrants, or them being disconnected from the Internet,” he told PBS MediaShift. “But in order to truly understand, we needed to understand what the migration process was like from a certain country’s perspective.”

The decision to focus on the Philippines came from the fact that it’s a huge source country for labor, with tens of millions of Filipinos traveling every year for work. According to the World Bank, the country received $25 billion in remittances in 2013.

The Philippines also had a key quality essential for the study — like other countries in southeast and east Asia, it’s extremely technologically saturated, and many Filipinos love to be on social media.

The report begins with this brief case study that encapsulates many of the concerns:

While interviewing survivors of labor trafficking for this report, researchers heard from a young woman in the Philippines who applied for domestic work in the Middle East. She recounted the way her friend, already working abroad, had called and sent texts of encouragement and eventually put her in touch with a recruiter. She was promised that her documents would be arranged with an employer before her flight to begin work. Upon her departure, the recruiter said that plans had changed. She was told her work papers and airline ticket would be issued in Malaysia. The woman was put on a boat and spent over a week crossing the Sulu Sea from one island to another. She was isolated. Her only means of communication was her mobile phone. Not wanting to worry her family (they had high hopes for her employment), she communicated only with her friend, asking for advice and reassurance. Even if she had been able to access the Internet, it is unclear whether she possessed the skills or knowledge to search for the appropriate online resources. Once in Malaysia, she was put into a van with others. While traveling to an unknown destination they were apprehended by police. Interrogated and imprisoned, the young woman managed to sneak her phone into jail and made one last call. Finally, the friend passed along word of her plight and the Philippine government intervened. After a month in prison she was repatriated and is currently in a rehabilitation shelter in Manila.


Photo by Flickr user and reused here with Creative Commons license.

Because so many of our interactions are shifting online, the space for horizontal networks — communications with different people along the same medium — to organically manifest is much easier now, Latonero said. People are keeping in touch with their friends, families and peers on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But these same communications could also take place with illegal recruiters or others with the potential to exploit workers — with the target person not even realizing the vulnerability.

“Technology can play an important role in both perpetuating and addressing labor trafficking,” said Ed Marcum, vice president of investments at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation. “Yet, little evidence-based research has been done on the relationship between the two.”

Navigating the full range of human behavior that appears online presents opportunities for both public and private sectors to help in the fight against labor trafficking, the researchers argue. By advocating for and ensuring that workers have free access to various technologies and social networks, researchers can also monitor something that might not ordinarily happen in the public eye.

“When something is online, we can actually see it. It’s visible,” Latonero told PBS MediaShift. “People are commenting on Facebook and message boards, and it’s giving us a sense of how someone is living abroad.”

With the evidence gathered from the report, the hope is to inform policy makers, Facebook, Google and other stakeholders to do something, Latonero said.

An example? “When the Philippines does a memo of understanding with Saudi Arabia [a top destination labor country], they ensure or specify that cell phones must not be taken away,” he said.

For more information on the report, check out the video below.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on March 17, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.


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