On Trafficking and Slavery

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by Kamala Kempadoo

Human trafficking is commonly equated with slavery as well as with prostitution, and often called "modern day slavery." However, these are erroneous equations, and it is important to keep in mind distinctions to avoid supporting moral panics and campaigns that can be harmful to migrant women and sex workers. Part of the problem lies in the history of trafficking.

Ideas about human trafficking date back to the mid-nineteenth century. They were lodged in concerns about global migrations that were part of the large-scale international relocations and displacements that took place after the abolition of slavery, concomitant to the internationalisation of waged labour in the period 1850-1914.

Working-class women and men were, at that time, crossing borders to find new futures, enduring systems of bonded labour and indentured servitude that positioned and maintained them as cheap, disposable work forces. Women moved independently or were moved through organised channels (commonly as sexual and domestic partners) servicing and reproducing the migrant labour force and obtaining new freedoms through non-marital sexual relations and waged work - including sex work - in a variety of sectors.

Nevertheless, gender ideologies at the time defined these women as either hapless victims of cruel, criminal men or as sexually 'loose' or debased persons (i.e. prostitutes). In particular, it was the image of the violation of innocent, pure, white womanhood that fuelled panics about "the traffic of women." In nineteenth-century narratives, "trafficked women" were those who were coerced, deceived, lured, trapped, kidnapped, and forced into sexual slavery. "The White Slave Trade" became shorthand for talking about human trafficking.

Global interventions and campaigns took shape to protect the women in Europe, North America and through colonial rule. For some, such as Indian women under British colonial indentureship systems, policies restricted or even banned their migration. For others, rescue operations were designed to return them to their homes, where they were to live as "decent" women. Such policies and operations were informed by white patriarchal anxieties about freedoms of women as well as people of color. The moral outrage about women in prostitution, as Emma Goldman wrote in the early twentieth century, served conveniently to obscure the causes of exploitation and oppression.

Little has changed.  Ideologies about the traffic of persons today are couched in various feminist and human rights discourses, yet continue to rest on moral indignation about violations of womanhood. They support 'migration-management' policies and tighter border controls, greater policing of migrant and Third World populations and rescue missions in sex industries while ignoring the causes for global migration and involvement in the sex trade. The panic about human trafficking then, leads to an intensification of state surveillance of the migration and income-generating activities of working people and to greater state control of women's sexual labour and agency.

Concern about "modern-day slavery" fixes attention on women in prostitution and child labour and produces lurid accounts about child and sex slaves while sustaining a multi-million dollar industry to combat human trafficking. In a country such as the US, the moral panic is supported by the Christian Right and radical feminists, who have joined forces with the US State Department to find ways to engage the rest of the world in a war on human trafficking. The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) gathers strength from the UN Trafficking Protocol that supplements the 2000 Convention on Transnational Organised Crime.

Any country that directly or indirectly supports prostitution or has legalised sex industries stands to be classified by the US State Department as aiding and abetting in the trafficking of human beings. Canada, like most countries around the world, responds to the US State Department pressure to wage a war on trafficking. Governments - including the Canadian - seek to rescue "trafficked victims," the majority of whom are identified through police raids in the sex industry. Migrant sex workers, in particular, are extremely vulnerable to being arrested and detained, and are most commonly deported back to countries from whose conditions they were trying to leave in the first place.

Despite the hype, the bases for claims about human trafficking are weak. Research has produced little data and identified very few 'trafficked victims'. Under contemporary global conditions, men and women increasingly and willingly move across internal and regional borders with or without papers to find work and new income-generating opportunities.

They are hired without documentation or a decent wage in a range of industries, including construction, agriculture, domestic work, tourism, and entertainment and become indebted to persons who recruit or 'assist' them to travel and find employment and housing. These new migrant workers become debt-bonded or exist in the margins of the nation-state as a despised, undocumented, hyper-exploited labour force, subject to a range of discriminations and forms of violence enacted by state and civil institutions.  

Moreover, the equation of trafficking with prostitution in the trafficking discourse treats all sex work as forced labour. It denies any agency to women in the sex trade, and seeks to abolish all prostitution. The righteous call to end the traffic of women also means a call for the end of sex work, and collides with a reality that makes sex work a viable alternative for many women.

And whether prostitution is legal, criminalized, or tolerated under national law, the equation of trafficking-as-prostitution-as-slavery places migrant women from the global South who are involved in the sex trade under extra scrutiny, and exposes them to the dangers of being apprehended, harassed, detained, deported, and recycled back into underground, criminalized activities. The panic over "trafficking in women" has conveniently helped to eclipse attention to state policing and control of migrant people, and puts a "benevolent" and "paternalistic" face on the police and border guards, who are well known for their systematic abuse of migrants.

The panic around human trafficking needs to be recognised both in its specific history and for the violence it visits upon marginalised communities, particularly migrant women. Immobilising the hype around "modern day slavery" then, remains a critical and necessary step towards charting viable alternatives in the 21st century.