DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
JULY 30 is the UN World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. There’s lots for us to think carefully about.
First, there is our understanding of trafficking. The term is often used as a catch-all for slavery, debt bondage or legal sex work. These are not the same, of course. As scholars have pointed out, forms of migration that traverse coercion, debt, and violence are complex and include both women and men working as domestics, and agricultural and factory labour.
Sex work is also common across the region, and is a form of labour for many to survive, whether in TT’s oil and gas economy, in the tourist economies of other Caribbean islands or the extractive gold and diamond sectors in our South American neighbours.
Sexual exchange for different kinds of financial and other support is also common, and may provide some with bargaining power, in conditions not of their own choosing, which they would otherwise not have.
However, more often than not, the “slavery” of women and girls for sexual exploitation is highlighted in the language of “trafficking,” and often there are photos of chained and shackled women which accompany headlines and campaigns.
These images are compelling, partly because they are so stereotypical, but also because they are simplistic to consume. We can see women and girls as helpless victims to be rescued (often by militias of men).
We can reproduce a panic that makes us feel good for feeling bad about others’ plight, and we can think that our awareness is making a difference, even when it’s not clear what action more aware citizens should undertake.
Such images also feed our empathy for those considered "innocent," but leave in place our mixed feelings about the majority of unregularised migrants, who may inhabit a grey world between agency and exploitation and who may not make perfect victims.
To return to how we think about trafficking for sexual exploitation, it’s easy to empathise with the stories of those kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but still not support those who negotiate their economic lives in relation to sexual labour and who already face state-sanctioned violence, over-policing and stigma.
In focusing on narratives of rescue, we are also rarely made aware of the deeper political and economic causes that lead to indebted or bonded migration.
To what extent does TT’s ambiguous legal and policy approach to migrants and refugees strengthen the conditions for migrants’ vulnerability? If migrant women without regularised status go to the police to report coercion, unsafe working conditions or violence, will they be returned to the home country which they fled in the first place? What is the impact of corruption among coast guards, immigration officials and police, and what action should we be demanding from the state to address this existing issue?
How does the sex industry in TT, in which sex workers cannot legally unionise and represent themselves as workers, leave room for precisely the kinds of extortion that then takes place? What happens when state action to protect migrant women forced into prostitution also criminalises those in the sex trade consensually? Instead of shackles, what would happen if we shine a light on such state complicity and its harms, and what effective responses actually require?
It’s interesting. TT has significant labour practices that are informal, illegal and non-contractual, and defined by low or under-the-table cash wages or poor working conditions. Much of the national population is not unionised and, as one writer in the excellent Open Democracy Series, “Beyond Trafficking and Slavery” put it, “there are few trafficked people in highly unionised industries.”
If we want to make the country a safer place for economic migrants crossing dangerous waters, defending workers’ rights would expand the protections available across bars, factories, groceries, farms, stores, households and brothels where migrants may work alongside low-waged citizens. As Kamala Kempadoo puts it, we also all need to be much more critical of a world and region defined by “the growing wealth and security of a few and the impoverishment and precarity of the majority.”
Solutions profoundly intersect migrant rights, worker rights, gender and sexual justice, and economic justice. Definitely, we should all be more aware.