Seth Gordon

Fin Trata

As I reflect on the final days of my internship with Abogados Sin Fronteras in Bogotá, Colombia, I’ve decided to divide my two blog posts by theme: For my first blog post, I’ll primarily discuss the academic and legal experiences I’ve had in Colombia, and for the second, the experiential learning aspect of my summer.

ASFC currently has two major projects: Proyecto Fin Trata, focusing on human trafficking and labour exploitation, and its work in transitional justice. I’ve primarily worked with the Fin Trata team this summer. My work has primarily consisted of legal research, as well as participating in various forums and workshops. Since June, I’ve attended a human trafficking workshop ASFC conducted for interns at the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, or JEP); a legal conference ASFC organized in partnership with the Colombian office at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; and several hearings held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. My research has covered topics such as: economic reintegration for victims of human trafficking; the effect of climate change on forced displacement; and the intersectional profile of victims in various global economic sectors of human trafficking.

Climate change and human trafficking

One of the reports I was asked to prepare was an analysis of the link between climate change and human trafficking. Current data and jurisprudence elucidate climate change’s direct impact on forced displacement and other indicators of structural vulnerability to trafficking.[1] Forced displacement due to the climate crisis most affects marginalized populations, such as: coastal communities and island dwellers; Afro-descendent and indigenous groups[2]; women and children; LGBTQ+ individuals; rural, agricultural, and impoverished communities; and migrants.[3]

Due to Colombia’s particular history of colonization and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the majority of the Afro-Colombian population is concentrated in Pacific and Caribbean coastal zones, which have areas with populations as high as 90% Afro-Colombian.[4] Coastal regions such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta also have large Indigenous populations, such as the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuacos, and Kankuamo people, who are directed descendants of the pre-Columbian Tairona culture.[5] The Amazon natural region also has large Indigenous populations, many of whom live in remote communities. It is also firmly established that these groups are affected heavily by forced displacement due the Colombian armed conflict and the guerilla presence in these areas.[6]

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) has repeatedly affirmed the connection between environmental protection and other human rights.[7] It has highlighted, amongst other rights affected by climate destruction, the right not to be forcibly displaced as particularly vulnerable to injury.[8] In January 2023, the States of Colombia and Chile formally requested a consultative opinion from the IACHR regarding their obligations towards the human rights of their citizens with regards to the climate change emergency.[9] In their request, the countries note that the corporate over-extraction of resources is directly contributing to internal displacement and violence against migrant groups.

The question I’ve been tackling is how to flesh out the connection between climate change and forced displacement to show a causal link with human trafficking and indentured servitude. There is well documented evidence that rates of human trafficking increase after natural disasters, such as typhoons, flooding, earthquakes, and tsunamis.[10] The United Nations Environment Program stated in 2018 that trafficking can increase by 20-30% in post-natural disaster zones.[11] The challenge I have faced has been finding jurisprudential and legislative support of this evidence: courts affirming environmental protection under the ambit of anti-human trafficking intervention, or treaties enshrining our rights to this effect.

Labour Exploitation, Modern Day Slavery, and Economic Migration

Before joining ASFC, I was not under the impression that I had directly relevant professional or academic experience in human trafficking. However, I’ve since realized that a community organization I’ve worked for, the Association for the Protection of Household and Farm Workers (DTMF-RHFW), has exposed to me to how labour trafficking exists in Canada and the Global North. The DTMF-RHFW engages largely in strategic litigation, advocating for systemic reforms to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) and other temporary migrant labour schemes in Canada. These programs allow foreign nationals from participating countries to enter Canada on temporary, employer-tied visas. They largely work in the agricultural, domestic, construction, and other labour sectors.

Principal amongst the many systemic vulnerabilities built into these programs is the precarious legal status of the workers. Their employers have the ability to fire them and summarily repatriate with little to no judicial review. This extreme power imbalance often entails myriad kinds of abuse: employers limiting labourers’ movements in and out of the workplace, especially in remote areas like farms; unsanitary, indecent, and dangerous work and living conditions; wage theft, overlong hours, and inadequate rest time; isolation, threats, and prohibited access to cellphones, the internet, and workers’ personal documentation; and, in some cases, physical and sexual violence. Unlike what we imagine when we think of labour trafficking, these programs are legal and administered by the state. They are not comprised of underground criminal networks or cartels. This is the labour that brings us our fruits and vegetables and that cares for our homes.

One of the myths Fin Trata challenges is that human trafficking can only be transnational. The reality is that a victim can be trafficked within the same block they grew up on. By the same token, human trafficking does not necessarily imply the existence of illicit migrant smuggling, a distinct phenomenon. In the case of many migrant labour programs, such as the Kafala system in the Gulf states or the TFWP in Canada, workers have regular immigration status in their destination country. However, many employers exploit the fact that workers cannot adequately advocate for better conditions or protect their rights without the fear of deportation or other retribution. The DTMF-RHFW’s argument is that we must reimagine the program systemically. The TFWP is not a case of a “few bad apples” or a structure that puts migrants in potential situations of abuse. The TFWP is inherently dependent on exploited, unfree labour.

A common counterargument that proponents of these migrant labour schemes will give is, ‘While some employers do create abusive work conditions, these don’t qualify as forced labour because workers always retain the ability to leave their employers.’ The reality is much different: workers are often exploited from the beginning of the trafficking process, where many pay illegal and exorbitant recruitment fees to phony recruiters in their countries of origin. Some employers also charge workers false housing fees, despite employer-provided housing being a legal obligation of many of these programs.

As a result, many workers find themselves in positions of indentured servitude, working to both send money to their families overseas and to pay back the debts they have incurred through participation. Many workers are unaware of their rights, unable to speak English, and have no access to justice to be compensated for this theft. Because many workers must (either through legal obligation or financial necessity) live in employer-provided housing, they cannot leave abusive workplaces without also forfeiting their housing. Finally, the fact that losing their job more likely means deportation rather than the limited protection provided by the government, workers are keenly aware that their international freedom of movement is also heavily controlled. The reality begins to describe typical conditions of labour trafficking much more readily than lawmakers would like to accept.

Coming back to Canada and engaging in advocacy work for migrant labourers, I feel more apprised of the reality of indentured servitude, labour exploitation, and human trafficking on a global scale. The face of either traffickers or trafficking victims can look like any of us—individuals of any race, age, background, moving across borders or within the same place. Combatting these inequities demands of us to dismantle commonly accepted narratives about how our economies and social infrastructure work. By amplifying the lived experiences of actual survivors, we can uphold the dignity and rights of all individuals.

[1] Relatora Especial sobre los derechos humanos de los desplazados internos (2020). Informe sobre desplazamientos internos en el contexto de los efectos adversos del cambio climático de evolución lenta. Párr. 32.

[2] Serie C No. 245, párr. 147 y Caso de las comunidades afrodescendientes desplazadas de la Cuenca del Río Cacarica (Operación Génesis) Vs. Colombia. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas.

[3] Relatora Especial sobre los derechos humanos de los desplazados internos (2020). Informe sobre desplazamientos internos en el contexto de los efectos adversos del cambio climático de evolución lenta. Párr. 32.

[4] Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Colombia : Afro-Colombians, 2008, available at:


[6] CIDH, Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas y Tribales sobre sus Tierras Ancestrales y Recursos Naturales – Normas y jurisprudencia del Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, 30 de diciembre de 2009, OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc. 56/09.

[7] See Caso Kawas Fernández Vs. Honduras. Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 3 de abril de 2009. Serie C No. 196. párr. 148; see also Corte IDH. Medio ambiente y derechos humanos (obligaciones estatales en relación con el medio ambiente en el marco de la protección y garantía de los derechos a la vida y a la integridad personal – interpretación y alcance de los artículos 4.1 y 5.1, en relación con los artículos 1.1 y 2 de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos). Opinión Consultiva OC-23/17 de 15 de noviembre de 2017. Serie A No. 23., (de ahora en adelante “OC- 23/17. Medio ambiente y derechos humanos”).

[8] For example, Comisión de Derechos Humanos, Principio 6 de los Principios rectores de los desplazamientos internos, Adición al Informe del Representante del Secretario General, Sr. Francis M. Deng, presentado con arreglo a la resolución 1997/39 de la Comisión de Derechos Humanos, 11 de febrero de 1998, Doc. ONU E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, y, respecto del cambio climático, Consejo de Derechos Humanos, Informe de la Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos sobre la relación entre el cambio climático y los derechos humanos, 15 de enero de 2009, Doc. ONU A/HRC/10/61, párr. 56.

[9] CIDH, Solicitud de Opinión Consultiva sobre Emergencia Climática y Derechos Humanos a la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos de la República de Colombia y la República de Chile.

[10] Andrea Truger, In the Eye of the Storm: The Connection Between Extreme Weather Events and Human Trafficking in the Case of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (Fall 2015) (master’s thesis, Lund University).

[11] United Nations Env’t Programme, Women at the Frontline of Climate Change: Gender Risks and Hopes 6-7 (Christian Nellemann et al. eds., 2011).