The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm

Chris Frazer is the co-organiser of this month’s Tip of the Iceberg conference addressing exploitation and trafficking in people throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.  She contributes this informative and challenging article for Movement Online.

“Trafficking happens where need meets greed.” 1


‘The perfect storm’ is said to be a combination of individual elements, circumstances, or events that together form a disastrous, catastrophic, or extremely unpleasant problem or difficulty 2.  Such a definition could arguably be used to describe contexts in which incidents of trafficking and exploitation of people occur.  Catastrophic weather events, environmental degradation, war and conflict, alongside the increasing globalisation of goods and services combine to create perfect storm conditions in which women, men and children are viewed and used as commodities.

All too often the media spotlight and trafficking discourse has centred on the dramatic. Many articles written, whether by news media or concerned organisations, have a tendency to slant towards the saints, sinners and saviours paradigm with the emphasis on raids and rescue, the goody versus the baddie.  Whilst not decrying vital efforts to rescue a child or adult trapped in exploitative conditions ,that in itself does not identify and address causal contributing factors which perpetuate such criminal activity.  Dramatic pictures used to promote the latest anti trafficking campaign, or the sensationalised news clip does little to stem the crime, indeed such theatrical presentations have the potential to cause far more harm than good.

The reality is the entrapment of people for financial gain is not a new phenomenon.  An article in the Foreign Policy magazine states; “The coerced movement of people across borders is as old as the laws of supply and demand. What is new is the volume of the traffic — and the realization that we have done little to stem the tide. We must look beyond our raw emotions if we are ever to stop those who trade in human lives.” 3

Looking beyond our emotions entails coming to grips with the reality that despite a universally accepted definition of what people trafficking is, with a raft of countries adopting such a protocol, plus millions of dollars being spent on raising awareness, the fact remains that the exploitation of people persistently remains, with no country being immune. In a cutting edge essay it is argued that trafficking continues to thrive because it reflects broader dynamics in our global political and economic system.4

The essay continues by quoting anthropologist Denise Brennan, who in her book, ‘Life Interrupted’, argues that abuses that occur within labour and migration are the twin pillars that undergird trafficking into forced labour.  “The desire and sometimes desperation to migrate for work, and the kinds of jobs available for workers in poorly regulated or unregulated labour sectors produce a perfect storm of worker exploitation.”5

More often than not, “trafficking is labour migration gone horribly wrong in our globalized economy.”6

Forget for a moment the Hollywood film version of people trafficking and exploitation, and take a look instead within your home, your office, and what you wear.  Reflect as well on the restaurant you are heading to for a meal. Then broaden the lens towards our hospitality and construction industries as well as our horticulture, viticulture, and our fishing industries. Exploitation of workers and people trafficking exists within our country as is evidenced by New Zealand’s first trafficking conviction in 20167 and also highlighted in the 2016 research. 8

Whilst the presenting issue is the immediate exploitation of migrant workers within New Zealand, there are underpinning factors which also need addressing longer term; otherwise we are simply applying a temporary band aid.  Little work for example has been done to address the chain of events, and the players involved, in the recruitment process from country of origin to the country of destination.  Furthermore very little research has been carried out to examine the issue on a global level, for no tracking of migrants seeking temporary work and their experience in different countries has been done.

Globalisation has seen heightened economic competition and considerable pressures to meet consumer ‘just in time’ supply demands which in turn has driven down wages.  A global push for cheap labour is seeing an ongoing increase in the need for migrant workers, especially for the 3 D jobs (dirty, degrading and dangerous) which national workers won’t fill.

A chilling observation was made in relation to migrant workers and the driving down of costs- ‘Ensuring that economic activity remains competitive in global markets requires that this labour supply be cheap and docile’.

Migration is closely coupled with globalisation and as one report said,

Globalization is having a profound impact on human displacement and mobility. As a recent ILO study put it, “The evidence points to a likely worsening of migration pressures in many parts of the world…. Processes integral to globalization have intensified the disruptive effects of modernization and capitalist development.

Many developing countries face serious social and economic dislocation associated with persistent poverty, growing employment, loss of traditional trading patterns, and what has been termed a “growing crisis of economic security.” A direct result is migration, as people leave insecure and destabilized homelands in search of survival and protection elsewhere.

Meanwhile, changing economic and demographic trends are combining to increase the demand for foreign labour in many industrialized countries. On the one hand, demographic trends are translating into aging populations, older median age work forces, more retired people dependent on fewer actively employed, and fewer entries into labour markets. 9

Counting the cost of carbon

Hysteria and hypocrisy walk in the footsteps of refugees and migrants. The paranoia of wealthy countries is deeply ironic. Their carbon intensive lifestyles are driving global warming, which is likely to become the largest single factor forcing people to flee their homes around the world.10

In his 2015 State of the Union address past President Obama stated, “The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe” 11

Coomaraswamy once commented that, ‘traffickers fish in the stream of migration’ 12.

People traffickers troll in a climate of weak law enforcement coupled with ongoing severe economic hardship, this we know. Lesser known, or extensively researched, is the connection between trafficking and the effects of climate change.  There is a growing consensus among both grass roots practitioners and researchers that we are well overdue to begin gathering the empirical evidence required to gain a greater understanding of the connections.

The International Organisation for Migration, in their information sheet, has this to say,

“Climate change increases the risk of natural disasters and places a strain on livelihoods; it exacerbates poverty and can potentially cause situations of conflict and instability. These conditions, when combined with a mismatch between demand for labour and supply and the proliferation of unscrupulous recruitment agencies, increase high-risk behaviours and other negative coping strategies among affected populations. This may include resorting to migrant smugglers, which in turn makes them vulnerable to trafficking in persons (TiP) and associated forms of exploitation and abuse.

The impact of climate change, however, is rarely considered as a potential contributor to human trafficking in global discussions or national level policy frameworks. 13

Climate change contributes, and in some instances exacerbates, situations of conflict. Such conflict can intensify incidents of trafficking and exploitation as people are forced to flee from the twin threats of starvation and violence.

As far back as 2012 a World Bank report highlighted a connecting factor between climate change and conflict pointing out that,

“While climate change may not be the sole cause of conflict in the future, it will increasingly become one of the most important and decisive factors. It will play a prominent role as a ‘threat multiplier’ – in situations where multiple stressors already exist, climate change may breach critical thresholds that lead to outbreaks of conflict. This is particularly true in situations where climate change impacts actual or perceived resource scarcity, patterns of human migration or unfolds within contexts of existing state fragility. In some cases, such as vulnerable small island nations, climate change threatens the integrity and sovereignty of the state itself.”14

For me it has become a question of connecting up the dots – dots which may significantly contribute to the growth in the exploitation of people, such as, absolute financial deprivation, gender discrimination, an uneven trading field, globalisation, consumerism and the detrimental effects arising from climate change.

Crossing the road, bridging the gap

Theologian Henri Nouwen once said,

We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics. There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.

To effectively tackle the underlying connections requires us to step across the road in order to widen our view.  All too often the trafficking discourse is overwhelmed by the ‘feeling good about feeling bad’ syndrome, rather than endeavouring to take the harder less glamorous  route of unravelling the myriad of complex issues which see such criminal activity growing unabated.

Pope Francis in a Sept. 23, 2011 homily stressed that:

“Jesus has not come to propose a theory of freedom,” but rather “stands with our brothers and sisters who live under slavery.” 15

I was once given a photo of a boat being tossed about on a stormy sea.  The words below simply said,

We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.

The Tip of the Iceberg conference will be held at Wellington Cathedral of St Paul on the 26th and 27th of July, and is a joint initiative between the Diocese, the US Embassy and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.  Click here to access the event’s page, and to register your attendance.


  1. Thrupkaew, Noy, TED talk, March 2015
  2. Thrupkaew, Noy, TED talk, March 2015
  5. A Companion to Public Theology, edited by Sebastian Kim, Katie Day , Lutheran Theological Seminar Philadelphia) 2017
  6. Janie Chuang, Beyond a Snapshot: Preventing Human Trafficking in the Global Economy
  8. Stringer, Dr. Christina, Worker Exploitation in New Zealand: A Troubling Landscape, 2016
  10. Andrew Simms, Policy Director, New Economics Foundation.
  11. The White House, “Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address,” January 20, 2015,
  12. Coomaraswamy, Radhika a human rights lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
  13. the climate change–human trafficking nexus, International Organisation for Migration, Bankok Thailand 2016