Multiply Justice

‘Human trafficking’ is slavery

J.J. Gould makes a compelling case for calling “human trafficking” what it is: slavery.

Slaves pan for gold in Accra, Ghana. Many have children with them as they wade in water poisoned by mercury that's used in the extraction process. (CC Lisa Kristine NC)

Slaves pan for gold in Accra, Ghana. Many have children with them as they wade in water poisoned by mercury that’s used in the extraction process. (CC Lisa Kristine NC)

Gould writes at TheAtlantic.com:

RANGOON, Burma … Ma Moe, 34, and her husband lived in a suburb about an hour outside Rangoon, poor enough that on some days they had nothing to eat. A friend offered her a job as a domestic worker in China where, she was told, she could make between $100 and $200 a month. Despite her husband’s objections, she decided to go.

Near the border, her friend told her the trip would soon get rough and she should take some pills so as not to get carsick. The pills knocked her out almost immediately. When she came to, she was in a small village in China; she still doesn’t know where. Kept with a few other women in a small house, Ma Moe was then taken around to different villages where she was offered up for sale as a “wife.” After a failed escape attempt, when she was beaten by local police, a man from northern China bought her.

By now, having spent a month-and-a-half as a Burmese commodity on a Chinese black market, she could hardly eat from the stress and was emaciated. Her owner was concerned — he wanted a child — so he had Ma Moe’s blood tested; the results showed that she’s HIV-positive; and he ended up abandoning her at the bus station. With no hope of being able to get back to Burma, she prayed to die. But a young newspaper seller, fending off an attempt by another apparent trafficker to get Ma Moe to go with him, called a police hotline for trafficking victims. The police coordinated Ma Moe’s transfer to a Burmese anti-trafficking task force, and they ultimately took her home.

There’s a plain-language word for [such] horror stories … as anachronistic as it might sound: slavery. Contemporary slavery is real, and it’s terribly common — here in Burma, across Southeast Asia, and around the world.

… In the West, and particularly in the United States, slavery has long settled in the public imagination as being categorically a thing of the past.

One consequence of this is that when people apply the idea of slavery to current events, they tend to think of it as an analogy. That is, they tend to use the word to dramatize conditions that may be exploitive — e.g., terrible wages or toxic working environments — but that we’d never on their own call “slavery” if the kind of forced labor we used to call “slavery” still existed. “In 1994, when I was in the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery,” recalls [Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves], “a group came in and said they wanted the UN to declare incest a form of slavery. And we were like, incest is incest; you don’t have to call it slavery.”

But there’s an inverse consequence to seeing slavery as a thing of the past, too: It can mean having a harder time recognizing slavery when it’s right in front of us.

… The dominant rhetoric that the coalition of Christian conservatives and anti-prostitution feminists who took the lead on this issue used at the time wasn’t “slavery” but “trafficking for sexual exploitation.” Around the same time, a movement started against sweatshop labor that developed its focus not broadly on the issue of forced labor but narrowly on the conditions of the sweatshops themselves, sometimes even just on safety issues within them.

Luis CdeBaca, the U.S. ambassador at large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, sees both of these frameworks as inhibiting and, intentionally or not, ways to feel too comfortable about addressing the issues in question. “If we say the problem with domestic servants is that they’re not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and so let’s just go out and make sure they get covered by labor laws around the world, we get to ignore, for example, the fact that domestic servants are being locked in and raped. It’s not a wage issue; it’s a crime issue. If we look at prostitution and we devolve back to the old debates about whether prostitution should be legal and regulated, should it be illegal and criminalized, we won’t say, ‘… hey, why doesn’t the 13th Amendment apply to a woman in prostitution just as much as to a woman on a farm?’ Then we end up missing the reality of modern slavery.”

***
Gould goes on to explore the complexities and opportunities of the modern battle against slavery. You can read the full text of his challenging article by clicking here.
You can find trustworthy partners to help you get involved in the fight against slavery by clicking here.

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2 thoughts on “‘Human trafficking’ is slavery

  1. Pingback: Kevin Bales: Anti-slavery activist « lara harlow-hentz

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