Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Introduction: moving beyond popular representations of trafficking and slavery

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editors introduce their first themed issue, which explores how slavery and trafficking have been represented—by public officials, activists, and numerous others—together with the frequently troubling consequences that these popular representations have had upon policy and practice.

Joel Quirk Julia O'Connell Davidson
11 January 2015
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Royce DeGrie/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

Information and communication are fundamental to political and social activism. Modern activists expend a great deal of time and energy trying to get their message out, using numerous strategies in an effort to attract the interest of the media, governments, corporations, international organisations, and the public at large. Recent work by Clifford Bob and others has shown that these efforts to raise awareness take place within a competitive marketplace, with numerous worthy causes vying for resources, interest and investment. While some causes are able to grab the headlines, many others remain in comparative obscurity.

‘Human trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ have fared well in this fierce competition between causes. Over the last two decades, human trafficking has secured a remarkable level of both popular and official recognition, resulting in a state of affairs where most people now have at least a passing familiarity with this general topic. While ‘modern-day abolitionists’ routinely lament how little the general public knows about their cause, many campaigners working on other issues would count themselves lucky if they secured even a fraction of the publicity and investment that trafficking now receives. This recent success is not simply because trafficking is ‘more deserving’ or ‘more urgent’. It can instead be chiefly traced to the strong popular appeal of representations of human trafficking as an exceptional problem involving ‘innocent’ victims and rapacious villains, along with the numerous ways in which the issue of trafficking has helped to advance the strategic interests of governments seeking to control, discipline, and/or limit the mobility of certain populations.

The recent political success of anti-trafficking has come at a considerable price. In order to help get their message out, activists and officials have repeatedly turned to a range of simplistic and misleading images, dubious ‘statistics’, and self-serving narratives. Even the history of slavery and abolition has been selectively mined to support contemporary causes, while more challenging questions regarding the limitations of anti-slavery activism and the enduring legacies of historical slave systems remain neglected. Although most people have now heard about human trafficking as a form of modern slavery, they frequently have a very limited understanding regarding the specific issues at stake. Much of what people think they know about trafficking and slavery is inaccurate, incomplete or unfounded.

Take, by way of example, the popular genre of ‘global facts and figures’ concerning trafficking and slavery. According to countless speeches, books and media reports, i) there are more slaves now than at any point in human history; ii) human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, and; iii) human trafficking has become the third largest global criminal industry, behind only guns and drugs, generating 32 billion US dollars annually. Since the main attraction of these ‘facts’ stems from their value as advocacy tools, there has been a widespread reluctance to ask how they have been calculated, and whether or not they are true.


Montage by BTS. Images from and Fair use.

However much various activists and organisations might proclaim otherwise, there is currently no sound methodological basis for constructing a global estimate of slavery or trafficking today. And since we don’t have a reliable baseline or sampling frame, we also have no reasonable basis for concluding that things are rapidly increasing globally. Most ‘statistics’ associated with trafficking and slavery are little more than blind stabs in the dark, with the further complication that those responsible for making up the numbers usually have a vested interest in coming to the highest possible total. Whenever comparisons take place (as, for instance, with guns and drugs), their ultimate goal is to make the problem of human trafficking and slavery as large as possible. Much the same story applies when it comes to comparisons between past and present. Modern activists use an expansive definition of ‘slavery’ when looking for contemporary slaves, yet restrict their understanding of slavery in the past to legal slavery. If many definitions of slavery used today were projected backwards through time, then huge numbers of people would need to be reclassified as slaves.

Unfounded, misleading and self-serving representations of trafficking and slavery have also had far-reaching consequences at the level of policy and practice. Several brief examples from a much longer list can be offered here. Thanks to an often voyeuristic interest in commercial sexual abuse, much less interest has been directed towards ‘unsexy’ problems and practices. Thanks to unrealistic models of ‘innocent victimhood’, individuals with more complicated personal stories have been deemed unworthy of assistance, despite the fact that they have been exploited and abused. Thanks to the construction of migration as a problem and threat, policy responses have focused upon telling migrants to ‘stay at home’, irrespective of the positive possibilities of mobility and the potential problems of ‘home’. Thanks to the popularity of ‘slavery as exception’, global patterns of systemic abuse, exploitation and discrimination and have been routinely dispatched to the margins of political conversations. Thanks to the depiction of trafficking victims as ‘exotic outsiders’ in need of rescue and salvation, there has been an uncritical return to some of the worst tropes of the colonial ‘civilizing mission’, where paternalistic intervention by ‘superior’ Westerners is justified in order to ‘save’ non-Western supplicants.

Many of these popular representations of slavery and trafficking have proved to be remarkably resistant to challenge and critique. Most of the issues highlighted above were first identified in the late 1990s—if not before—and have been repeatedly challenged in the decades that have followed. Despite this, the same representations and formulas continue to be widely reproduced. There is now, for example, an extensive literature documenting the limitations of high profile ‘fact and figures’, yet dubious ‘statistics’ persist. Similarly, researchers have demonstrated that major sporting events, such as World Cups and Superbowls, do not appear to generate major spikes in the local prevalence of human trafficking, yet each new major sporting event nonetheless generates a new round of sensationalist reports regarding the imminent threat of a massive increase in trafficking and prostitution.

This recurring pattern points to a fundamental challenge. There are numerous actors and institutions in anti-trafficking and anti-slavery circles who are heavily invested in upholding and reproducing these flawed representations and associated policy responses. This is important, because their increasingly defensive resistance to alternative voices and approaches constitutes one of the principle obstacles to developing and disseminating better understandings of the diverse problems and issues at stake, and working towards more effective strategies, interventions, and frames of reference. Popular representations of trafficking and slavery have too often hurt—rather than helped—efforts to both understand and combat global exploitation, discrimination and vulnerability.

We are publishig two separate batches of articles exploring popular representations of slavery and trafficking over the course of January. Our first batch of articles came out 12 January. It began with a major contribution from Kamala Kempadoo, who considered how popular representations of trafficking and modern slavery can be traced to older stories about the ‘white man’s burden’. This is the first of several contributions that take up historical themes and flag the on-going significance of race in ‘modern slavery’ despite new abolitionists’ insistence that it is a ‘colour blind’ phenomenon. We also heard from Ben Rogaly, who considered how and why representations of ‘forced labour’ have likewise created an ‘exceptional’ problem, with a singular focus on migrants sidestepping contentious questions regarding capitalism and class.

Vanessa Pupavac then challenged simplistic celebrations of the hero of the original abolitionist movement, William Wilberforce. She raised difficult questions about the construction of slavery as a problem that can be detached from more general demands for labour rights and freedom of movement. Liam Hogan explored the contemporary political agendas associated with the historical mythology of Irish indentured servants as ‘white slaves’, while James Esson examined the representations and realities of Ghanaian youth football players, who have been reported as ‘victims’ of ‘child trafficking’.  We ended the first tranche with a piece from Robbie Shilliam, who contrasted the historical amnesia of the ‘new slavery’ with parallel campaigns seeking reparations for the history and legacies of legal slavery.

Our second batch of articles starts today, 26 January. It begins with a contribution from Sally Engle Merry, who focuses upon the preoccupations and technologies associated with quantification and ranking, which have been a powerful vehicle for the US government to promote their trafficking agenda. We also lead off with Svati Shah, whose research into sex work and migration in Mumbai complicates popular notions of young women as ‘victims of tradition’. Tomorrow we hear from Jennifer Musto, who considers how representations of ‘domestic child trafficking’ have paved the way for incarceration and surveillance as official ‘solutions’. Later in the week, we focus upon popular representations of ‘innocence’, which routinely reduce otherwise autonomous agents into passive victims in need of rescue.

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From Christian Film Database. Fair Use.

Childhood has recently come to be widely imagined as a state of innocence, so children are frequently held to embody ‘true’ victimhood. On Wednesday we feature two articles that critique such tropes in anti-trafficking films and books. Kerwin Kaye explores how film producers seeking an audience have turned to sensationalism, sexual voyeurism, and narratives of rescue and damnation in his reviews of Trade and Holly. Bridget Anderson, meanwhile, finds a common defense of neoliberal agendas in two books that, at first blush, approaching trafficking from very different angles. Thursday finds Ingrid Palmary exploring the politics of competing representations of trafficking and prostitution within South Africa, and we wrap up the week with Joel Quirk calling into question the popular rhetoric of a singular and cohesive global cause: ending slavery today.

Once this popular rhetoric is deflated, it quickly becomes evident that there is not one global anti-trafficking or anti-slavery movement, but many actors and activists with competing agendas and priorities.

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