The last two decades have seen a whole host of political leaders, including both George W. Bush and Robert Mugabe, publicly declare their support for the global cause of combating human trafficking.
Politicians on the left and right rarely agree about anything these days, yet there have recently been many occasions where anti-trafficking laws and policies have secured high-level, bipartisan support. This diverse political coalition has helped to promote a misleading image of human trafficking as a ‘non-ideological’ issue that transcends ‘normal’ politics, with conservatives, liberals, traditionalists and progressives all coming together under the banner of a common global cause.
To help make sense of the issues involved here, we need to reflect on why political and ideological adversaries have often been able to reach – or at least appear to reach – an unusual degree of common ground when it comes to combatting trafficking.
Who gets what, when
Politics has often been defined in terms of who gets what, when, and how. The question of who gets what frequently boils down to political competition over the distribution of wealth and power. Politicians and political parties generate at least part of their support via their capacity to protect and promote the interests of key economic and social groups. In many countries, this often involves an expectation that politicians on the left will support the interests of workers and the public sector, while their counterparts on the right support corporations and the private sector. While not everything can be explained in terms of interests, there is no doubt that interests matter a great deal when it comes to shaping political behaviour and political outcomes.
This familiar model of politics can be usefully applied to recent efforts to combat human trafficking. Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of researchers have linked anti-trafficking efforts to larger political interests and agendas. These links are said to be strongest with regard to the relationships between trafficking and the legal status of prostitution, and between trafficking and the expansion of border protection measures.
These are not topics that we propose to revisit here, since they have been already covered in considerable depth. Instead, we are chiefly interested in why anti-trafficking efforts have frequently been able to secure an unusual level of bipartisan political support in many countries.
One key issue is the degree to which human trafficking has been closely associated with prostitution. While commercial sex work is a topic that generates strong emotions, it is not an issue that directly threatens dominant economic and political interests (although larger gender relations within society are definitely a major part of the equation here). This political profile is important, because it helps to explain why anti-trafficking has often been able to command an unusual level of bipartisan support. In stark contrast to historical campaigns to end legal slavery, which were firmly aimed at the profits and privileges of the rich and powerful, more recent global ‘anti-slavery’ campaigns targeting human trafficking only rarely pose a direct threat to major political and economic interests.
Competition between different interests is a routine feature of political and economic life. When unions campaign to improve wages and working conditions for their members, commercial interests concerned with rising costs routinely oppose their efforts. When human rights activists campaign to end serious abuses associated with the abuse of state power, such as torture and extrajudicial killings, they are opposed by government officials and security hawks. When Occupy Wall Street challenges the excesses of global capitalism, their political opponents are corporations and their government enablers.
In contrast, when anti-trafficking campaigns target abuses associated with commercial sex, their efforts do not directly challenge major economic and political interests. There may well be occasions where individual elites are implicated in specific abuses, but the criminal nature of their activities seriously curtails significant public opposition.
Combating organized crime
Criminality is another key ingredient in the bipartisan appeal of human trafficking. Combating human trafficking is widely understood to involve combating organized crime, which in turn requires governments to prosecute villains and protect victims. While not all governments live up to their anti-trafficking obligations, those who do take steps to combat human trafficking can expect to receive praise for their efforts.
This happens most notably via the Trafficking in Persons Reports compiled by the United States government, which tend to give highest marks to western governments. This can be contrasted with the poor human rights records of states in many other areas, such as extrajudicial killings and drone strikes, or state sanctioned abuses associated with migration and asylum. Combating trafficking is a cause that often casts governments as protectors, rather than villains, which is a role with considerable bipartisan appeal for politicians.
The politics of exception
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the bipartisan appeal of combating human trafficking can also be traced to the fact that human trafficking is widely understood to be confined to a fairly small number of ‘aberrant’ and ‘exceptional’ cases. It is here that references to the history of slavery and abolition become particularly significant. Building upon images linked to Transatlantic slavery, references to human trafficking and modern slavery generally involve an assertion of exceptionality, wherein slavery and trafficking are promoted as unique and exceptional evils that stand apart from other ‘lesser’ human rights abuses.
One of the main attractions of this hierarchical model is that it can have the effect of tacitly legitimating, or at least de-prioritising, numerous abusive practices and patterns of inequality and poverty that are said to fall short of ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ slavery.
This language of exception often has the effect of consolidating – rather than challenging – dominant political and economic interests, especially in the Global North. Instead of focusing upon global patterns of exploitation, violence, and discrimination, combating human trafficking commonly involves a more narrow focus upon specific cases of the ‘worst of the worst’. Moreover, these exceptional cases are usually said to be mainly concentrated within ‘backward’ countries in the Global South, and at the ‘irregular’ margins of the global economy.
This politics of exception is particularly significant in relation to labor trafficking and forced labor. In this area, modern slavery has been widely understood to primarily involve a series of deviant and isolated exceptions within otherwise entirely legitimate global supply chains and ‘free’ labor relations.
Take, for example, the recent ranking system developed by the NGO Free2Work, which ranks corporations from ‘A’ and ‘F’ based on a limited assessment of their record in terms of forced labor and child labor. Rather than challenging the systemic problems and abuses associated with global supply chains more generally, Free2Work primarily focuses upon identifying specific ‘bad apples’. Most corporations are assigned passing grades. Companies with records deemed acceptable include footwear giants Reebok/Adidas (B+) and Nike (B), which have long been heavily criticized for regular labor abuse and dangerous working conditions. The threshold for legitimate corporate conduct becomes little more than not actively practicing slavery.
Combating human trafficking is a cause that is in need of substantial redefinition. This requires the dissolution of many existing models and the promotion of a larger political vision. We have no doubt that human trafficking, forced labour and slavery are all very serious and urgent problems. But they are problems that need to be understood as extreme manifestations of global patterns of injustice, exploitation, discrimination, and inequality, rather than as isolated and deviant exceptions.
It is also essential to recognise that these patterns frequently persist because of – rather than in spite of – government actions. While the political rhetoric associated with combating trafficking can sometimes be radical, the overall effect of recent policies and practices has too often been conservative. It is likely that a more robust and politically ambitious vision of anti-trafficking – or anti-slavery – will lose support from governments and corporations who benefit from the politics of exception.
This is a price worth paying, as the cost of bipartisan political support has been a cause that rarely threatens the interests of the rich and the powerful, and thereby fails the test of speaking truth to power.
This article draws on material from a forthcoming book: Annie Bunting and Joel Quirk (eds.), Contemporary Slavery and Human Rights, University of British Columbia Press.
This article is from the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.