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The past decade has seen concerns about the exploitation of migrant labour increasingly discussed in terms of ‘trafficking’ and ‘forced labour.’ This is particularly true of public discourse and policy documents, and arguably this has been strongly influenced by the International Labour Organisation’s 2005 report on forced labour. While some welcome this interest in trafficking as offering possibilities for public sympathy and common ground with government, others like Nandita Sharma are more sceptical, pointing to the dangers of annihilation of migrant agency in the rush to ‘help’ vulnerable victims.
Laura Maria Agustin’s Sex at the Margins, and Kevin Bales’ Understanding Global Slavery ostensibly come from opposing positions on this question. Sex at the Margins is highly critical of anti-trafficking. It aims to bring the voices of migrants to the fore and to rectify the silence on migration studies around the issues of sex work. Agustin examines the intersection of migrants and those people seeking to protect and support them. The book asserts that, particularly in the case of sex and care workers, these ‘helpers’ have singularly failed to make any difference in the lives of the people about whom they purportedly care. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Spain, she argues that ‘social helpers’ in fact perpetuate victimising identities of those they ‘help’, in this case the trafficked victim. Sex at the Margins emphasises the importance of recognising the agency of migrant sex workers, and of respecting their decisions and their understandings of their choices.
In contrast, Understanding Global Slavery is clearly written by a person committed to ‘helping’. The collection as a whole takes the position that rescuing slaves is a moral obligation. Ending slavery is eminently feasible, according to Bales, and will bring with it multiple economic and social benefits. Slaves are denied ‘free will’ and therefore require the assistance of rescuers. In the worst-case scenarios, these are ‘redeemers’, or people who buy ‘slaves’ in order to set them free. There is a lack of reflexivity, of consideration of the power-laden relation between victim and rescuer. While this gives a moral assuredness and clarity to the volume, it oversimplifies and at times topples over into moralising.
At first glance then it seems as if Sex at the Margins and Understanding Global Slavery are coming from opposing viewpoints. The former affirms agency and gives voice to migrants, while challenging the motivations and the responses of ‘helpers’. The second is concerned with rescuing slaves and with the moral obligation to help. Yet there is a strange similarity between the two. They are both, at the end of the day, concerned with rescuing the market.
Bales is quite explicit when he says, “it doesn’t take a revolution to set slaves free,” pricing the cost of freeing all 27 million slaves in the world at $945 million. Markets can function morally and it is possible to be moral agents in capitalist markets, he assures us, but we must stamp out those evil employers who are more concerned with profits than people. Indeed, he suggests we see ‘freeing the slaves’ as more an investment than a bargain, as ex-slaves will contribute to economies by becoming consumers.
Agustin has little time for such moralising arguments, but the market remains triumphant. People are actors in a crude, rational choice driven world. Helpers deceive themselves, but migrants and sex workers know they inhabit a Hobbesian state of nature where every women, man and child fends for themselves. “Everyone becomes an opportunist… everyone looks for chinks to exploit for their personal benefit,” she says. Those who think otherwise are not even idealistic romantics. They simply refuse to acknowledge their own self-interest. Agustin paints a bleak world, in which everyone finds ways to do the best they can for themselves in the end.
For Agustin and Bales, states are largely let off the hook. They may have a stated commitment to end slavery, but they either find this difficult to implement (Bales), or they fail to incorporate certain individuals into their polity – and the individuals may not want to be incorporated anyway (Agustin). Thus despite the surface differences of these two books, the politics of rescue and the celebration of agency both lead to a focus on individuals that, far from being marginal or challenging, sit well within neoliberal agendas.
A longer version of this review article appeared in Global Networks (2008) 8(3).