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The anti-trafficking rehabilitation complex: commodity activism and slave-free goods

NGOs that provide alternative, low-wage employment for 'rescued' sex workers market their goods as 'slave free', yet engage in the same exploitative labour relations that they claim to detest.

Shanghai. Lei Han/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Yan was a sex worker in Beijing for over five years. Sex work offered greater autonomy and better income relative to the typical low-wage service sector jobs available to rural-to-urban migrants like her. She began working in a massage parlour at the age of 18, after migrating from a rural part of Fujian Province in southern China. As an employee, she provided massages in addition to different sexual services, receiving a monthly salary as well as commissions based on how many clients she saw. After a disagreement with her manager over owed wages, however, Yan grew frustrated with her job and was recruited to work at a Christian vocational training and rehabilitation programme for sex trafficking victims in China. Her recruitment occurred not through a formal raid operation, but through weekly volunteer street outreach conducted by an American non-governmental organisation working in Beijing. While Yan and most of her co-workers do not consider themselves victims of trafficking, the American (NGO) that employs them sees sex work to be inherently exploitative and thus indistinguishable from human trafficking.

In recent years, anti-trafficking NGOs have created a cottage industry of ‘victim repair’ through vocational training as a form of rehabilitation. Numerous faith-based and secular NGOs—working in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, India, Mexico, Moldova, Uganda, and the US—focus on selling wares made by the women they employ to raise funds and awareness about human trafficking. They insist that wage labour can provide sex workers with an economic alternative to commercial sex, but often do not separate the wage they offer from other subjective requirements of what it means to be a ‘dignified’ and ‘free’ labourer in the global economy. Jewellery, tote bags, blankets, and placemats are among the many products sold online and at anti-trafficking conferences and fairs, such as the annual “Freedom and Fashion” show in Los Angeles that attracts thousands of consumers each year.

The success of these NGOs stems from their ability to erroneously market the cause of human trafficking as synonymous with ‘modern-day slavery’. While sex work done by women like Yan carries various risks, it is not a form of ‘slavery’ as modern abolitionists and anti-trafficking advocates insist. Their ubiquitous use of the label, however, serves to obscure the labour relations of sex work with ethical and moral concerns about sex, migration, and commerce. In doing so, these advocates fail to recognise the systemic and legal dimensions separating human trafficking from historical forms of chattel slavery and unfree labour, and ignore how anti-trafficking activism itself is a byproduct of race, national, and gendered forms of power. There exists a fundamental inequality between anti-trafficking activists in the global north and those they wish to assist.

Yan’s NGO trains former sex workers to make jewellery, which is then sold under the ‘fair trade’, ‘ethically sourced’, and ‘slave-free’ labels through the vibrant anti-trafficking movement in the United States. Employees earn 1,800 yuan ($295) per month, similar to other low-wage jobs in Beijing where the monthly minimum wage is 1,720 yuan ($265). For most of the women this represents only one-third to one-fifth of their previous monthly earnings as sex workers. Meanwhile, the pieces Yan designs and produces for the NGO sell for up to $70 apiece at anti-trafficking fairs in the US. The ‘victim of trafficking’ label adds tremendous market value to such products even though it does nothing for her wages.

In addition to vocational training, NGOs rely heavily on moral rehabilitation to ‘repair the victim’. The NGO employing Yan requires workers to contractually agree to neither sell sex nor patronise their former entertainment establishments in the future. They are also required to live in mandatory shelter housing, have a nightly curfew, and are forbidden from receiving male visitors during the weekdays. There is also optional daily Bible study, but if they choose not to attend, they must work through the hour making jewellery. So everyone goes.

At a similar project in Bangkok, Thailand, workers are not required to live on site. Many hold part time jobs in other service industries so that they can make enough money to support their family on a minimum wage salary, which in Thailand is 300 baht per day ($10 a day). They work an array of low wage and unprotected positions, such as waitresses, nannies, cooks, house cleaners, etc. to make up the difference between their former wages as sex workers and their current wages as ‘rehabilitated victims of sex trafficking’. These workers choose to remain in these jobs as jewellery makers for a number of reasons. Several have converted to Christianity and enjoy working at a company that vibrantly integrates their faith alongside the workday. Others claim significant benefits to working for ‘foreigners’ in China and Thailand. These include their social perception amongst family and peers as well as the material benefits—such as weekends and Christian holidays—that are not offered by the majority of low wage labour opportunities in Beijing and Bangkok. Those workers who have not converted to Christianity—the vast majority—generally see minimal differences in the labour relations of their new occupation, but this narrative of transformation and dignified work provides a convenient and satisfying fiction for activists and consumers of jewellery.

While some former sex workers consider such work desirable and the social conditions at minimum bearable, the imposed social and moral restrictions cause many others to leave the programmes. After working as a jewellery maker for three years, Yan decided to leave the NGO because she saw limited opportunities for upward mobility relative to the daily social restrictions of work. Once Yan returned to her hometown in Fujian Province, she found herself once again facing limited opportunities in low-wage service sector employment. She attempted to sell jewellery in local marketplaces, but quickly learned that she could not earn a living wage doing so. After three years of vocational training, she was left without a financially viable vocation, and chose to work a smattering of low wage occupations including restaurant work and in garment factories. Many others who leave vocational training programmes choose to return to sex work. However, many of these women go back to work with new emotional burdens. These are the result of years of mandatory life counselling and repentance therapy under vocational training, which drove home the message that sex work is immoral and sex workers are in need of repair.

Contradictory moralising

The forms of ‘rescue’ and ‘victim rehabilitation’ promoted by both of these NGOs often contradict their benevolent positions, because the labour requirements of such minimum wage work perpetuate the same forms of restriction and coercion that they associated with sex work. In practice, such contradictions have significant implications. Both organisations reject the applications of migrant workers who are victims of non-sexual labour exploitation, as rehabilitative labour jobs are available exclusively to former sex workers. This attends to the fact that one of the fundamental reasons why organisations focus on jewellery making is not because it's a desired local craft or a viable vocation, but because it is a trade that is regarded as is feminine and feminising. As one activist boldly claimed while selling jewellery at a Southern California anti-trafficking fair, “jewellery making restores femininity to where femininity has been lost.”

The niche market around the products of former human trafficking victims—“buying for freedom”, as it is frequently marketed—is based on deceptively simplistic narratives created by the organisations that sell these products. In China, for example, the branding of slave-free products relies on the stereotype of innocent, young subordinate women forced into sex work to support their families. Likewise, in Thailand, Christian organisations demonise Buddhist and animist spiritual practices as those that subordinate women through deep-seated religious and cultural norms. These narratives work to gain sympathy and support for these NGOs, but rarely do these simplistic stories recognise the complex decision-making processes of women to willingly, or unwillingly, enter sex work.

The focus of anti-trafficking NGOs on moral re-education, labour training and the sale of their products does not increase the long-term economic prospects of former sex workers—it only generates income for NGOs and privileges the perspective of cosmopolitan global activists. Rather than rescue, sex workers have long asked for increased employer accountability, health and safety measures, and protections from police abuse. The focus on rehabilitation through labour, particularly when framed within the interests of human trafficking, has silenced these concerns and has resulted in increased surveillance, stigmatisation, and unwarranted and unwanted rescue from sex work.

The anti-trafficking rehabilitation complex and marketing of slave free goods is intentionally facile. It simplifies the realities of sex work as a means to obscure systemic questions about labour relations and labour rights across many different, low-wage working arrangements. It also avoids asking important questions regarding the power imbalance that exists between ‘victims’ and their rescuers/employers, on one hand, and how that plays out regarding women’s rights over their bodies, labour, choice and agency on the other. In the global anti-trafficking marketplace, women’s global subordination is consistently reproduced under the benevolent guise of rescue and rehabilitative labour, and the promise that we can shop our way to dignity and freedom.

A previous version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of 'Contexts'.

About the author

Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. Her current book project, The Price of Freedom: Moral and Political Economies of Global Human Trafficking Rescue, is based off 40 months of ethnographic participant observation of the transnational movement to combat human trafficking. She is also a Faculty Fellow leading the Human Trafficking Research Cluster through the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. She tweets at: @uhlenna.

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