01/13/2012 09:05 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Building Effective Anti-Trafficking Efforts: Drivers as Allies

When a person is trafficked, he or she experiences some type of force, fraud, or coercion in a work setting. Trafficking is about living in a climate of fear. This means that trafficked persons often experience isolation and invisibility, are subjected to abuses of power by their employers, and they have little or no access to help. Over the last decade, the United States has focused more on concerns around human trafficking, and we have worked to find ways to end it. As with all complex issues, some solutions work better than others.

Recently, some anti-trafficking advocates have called for punishment of taxi and other drivers who may be driving people engaged in prostitution, based on the notion that these drivers are engaging in promoting prostitution and also in human trafficking. But this is a false premise -- the presence of prostitution does not mean that trafficking is taking place. Drivers may interact with sex workers in a variety of ways. While sex workers and escort agencies may use the services of licensed taxi drivers, the driver may or may not know that their "fare" is involved in sex work. Even where a driver knows he or she is driving a sex worker, he or she may not be aware of the circumstances of that worker. If a driver is aware of a trafficking situation, it is far more preferable to empower him or her to come forward and report the situation. These kinds of alliances among workers in low-wage industries are often more effective for helping trafficked persons than punishing people who may or may not be aware of what is happening.

In most states, "promoting prostitution" has a very vague definition. It includes anyone who knowingly aids another person to commit prostitution and anyone who receives money from someone else, knowing it came from prostitution. Under proposed policies, any time a driver gives a sex worker a ride, he may be committing the crime of "promoting prostitution."

Generally, vehicles are used in human trafficking and prostitution in a few ways. First, sex workers frequently use cabs and for-hire cars to get to specific locations or to get home from appointments safely. Escort services may employ cabs or for-hire cars for the same purpose. The drivers of these vehicles may or may not know that their passenger is engaging in prostitution. Without taxi cabs or for-hire vehicles, these sex workers could face considerably greater dangers in going to and from their workplace. Additionally, a driver who knows that a passenger is engaging in prostitution can help or report information to the police should the sex worker disappear or if she is the victim of a crime. For this category of driver, punishment may make drivers fearful to give rides to sex workers, offer help to a sex worker in trouble, or report crimes against sex workers to the police. For-hire cars, which in New York City serve more remote neighborhoods, are an especially important safety resource for lower-income and vulnerable sex workers. As documented in the reports from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, Revolving Door and Behind Closed Doors, people involved in sex work experience assault, rape, robbery, and other violent crimes at significantly higher levels than others. Access to a vehicle in order to leave a potentially dangerous situation is a critical element of safety for all sex workers.

Second, some trafficking operations employ vehicles to transport their victims from a residence to a brothel or to a customer's house. In some cases, trafficking operations use vehicles as spaces for the sexual conduct to take place. In these situations, the vehicles are usually privately owned by members of a trafficking operation. This type of driver is not operating a licensed for-hire vehicle, but is really a part of the trafficking ring. They may be low-level employees of the trafficking ring and have sympathy for the victims, or they may be actively involved in abusing and trafficking the victims. In either case, these drivers are generally not affected by new efforts to punish taxi drivers, because they are not licensed.

Finally, some trafficking operations may hire vehicles or taxi cabs to transport their victims to different locations. Victims of trafficking who have a bit more freedom of movement may hire a taxi or for-hire car themselves. These drivers generally are not involved in the trafficking scheme, and may or may not know that their passenger is involved in prostitution.

Whether or not drivers are aware of a trafficking scheme, drivers are potential resources to victims of trafficking. They may be the only people the trafficking victim sees besides her customers and her abusers. Drivers may be able to offer a victim an escape route, a ride to a friend or family member's house, a referral to a service provider, a ride to a shelter, a hospital, or a police station.

For example, our client at the Sex Workers Project, "Amy," was trafficked at the age of 16 and forced to engage in commercial sex. During this time, she only saw her trafficker, drivers who were employed by the trafficker, and her customers. On two occasions she requested help from a driver to help her leave the trafficker. On both occasions, the drivers did try to help her and take her to another location. Unfortunately, the trafficker found her and took her back into custody, although she ultimately found her way to us for help. In order to reach victims of trafficking, we need to encourage such drivers to report trafficking and come to the aid of victims. Efforts to punish drivers might actually dissuade them from offering help or rides to victims of trafficking and to sex workers who are not trafficked, but whose safety may be at risk.

We support efforts to increase the chances that drivers will act as resources or escape routes for victims of trafficking, and not punish or discourage them from driving sex workers. Education on how to identify a victim of trafficking and what resources are available for victims of trafficking could be very useful to drivers. Drivers having this information could be potentially life-saving for victims they encounter. However, this education would have to be delivered by experts on sex work and on human trafficking. Innovative outreach efforts like these are an important way to end trafficking in persons and offer real help to victims.

Crossposted from Race-Talk.