Human Trafficking: From ‘word association’ to ‘world association’

Understanding the extent of labor exploitation in a connected world

by Cathy Chang | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – January 11 is designated as annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States. In understanding human trafficking, it’s useful to start with a game of word association. When people think about the concept of “human trafficking” their responses might include prostitution, pornography, massage parlors or nail salons, southeast Asia, inner cities or the Super Bowl.

What might be less known are examples of forced labor that constitute more worldwide cases of human trafficking. From the people who harvest the beans for your morning coffee or the tomatoes in your salad or sandwich, or miners who extract the minerals found in your smartphone and computer. These laborers are potential victims in the global economy. With support from public policies and international protocols, a human rights approach empowers potential victims to become self-determined agents in their work. Referring to the first responses from the word association game, what seems to get peoples’ attention are headlines and news stories. All too often what gets overlooked are the conditions that underline human trafficking and its prevention strategies.

The 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a comprehensive human trafficking policy called “Not for Sale.” At the heart of this policy is the desire to empower people in their work while addressing underlying inequality and inequity in the global economy. This policy affirms that because all people bear the image of God and work is considered a calling, we can participate in the redemption of God’s creation.

The policy also affirms earlier General Assembly actions focused on the sexual exploitation of women near U.S. military bases, and more recent successes such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers anti-slavery campaign in the southeastern United States. The policy seeks to stay timely and relevant by studying the decriminalization of prostitution, along with the inclusion of organ and tissue trafficking and the plight of child soldiers.

When conversations about globalization happen between members of churches in the United States, and in the worldwide church, people can speak openly about their relationship not only in spiritual niceties but also about hard realities. During a recent PC(USA) delegation trip to Thailand, General Assembly Co-Moderator the Rev. Denise Anderson, along with Presbyterian Mission Agency staff members from World Mission, Peacemaking and the Presbyterian Ministry of the United Nations, examined how these issues of migration and human trafficking impact tribal minorities, refugees and migrants.

From a devotional each delegation participant has written for Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Anderson reflects, “I noticed many parallels between labor, migration and trafficking issues there and in my own United States. There is pain everywhere, and we often navigate through life oblivious to it. Such things ought not be so.”

(From left) Cathy Chang, Trelly Marigza, Alden Ambida and Marie Suarez attending a Public Forum about Human Trafficking with United Church of Christ colleagues. (Photo provided)

Such collaboration, as demonstrated through the diversity of participants with this recent travel study seminar, is necessary to confront the different faces of human trafficking. Since 2008, the Human Trafficking Roundtable has recognized this need and was constituted to affirm the work of prevention and advocacy. Many of the member offices have already been working to address human trafficking such as the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, Presbyterian Women, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Office of Immigration Issues. Other members include the Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Men and Self-Development of People.

In addition to PC(USA) member agencies of the Human Trafficking Roundtable, members of PC(USA) churches and ministries in their respective communities can serve as the force behind freedom for human trafficking. Concerned citizens and consumers can call for human rights through their choices. When traveling for leisure or business they can make plans with companies that have signed The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, which stands against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. When choosing where to eat and what to buy, they can support businesses with transparent supply chains that empower workers.

Instead of staying with this game of “word association,” what might it look like for human trafficking to be a way of “world association”? Consider the example of Jesus who associated with the downtrodden segments of society, and still he challenged those who used their power to maintain control. Like Jesus, when we associate with the world, we can still work towards the redemption of God’s creation.

International mission co-workers live and serve among the world’s vulnerable populations. When we support mission co-workers, we associate with the world. We live in communities that are increasingly diverse in religion and ethnicity. When we seek to learn from our neighbors and together seek the well-being of our communities, we associate with the world. People who produce food, clothing and products, live and work in the same world but often without human rights that protect them. When we support people who are free in their work and free from exploitation, we associate with the world.

Human trafficking need no longer result in responses from a word association game, but rather the way that God is calling all of us to associate with the world in working towards the redemption of God’s creation.


The Rev. Cathy Chang is the PC(USA) World Mission regional facilitator for addressing migration and human trafficking.

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