Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Talking trafficking with Jamaican sex workers

Sex workers face more abuse from clients and police than from ‘traffickers’, but addressing that would mean accepting sex workers have an equal right to freedom. That’s why governments don’t.

Julia O'Connell Davidson
2 May 2019
Annotto Bay, Jamaica.
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Midnight Believer/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sa)

Since 2005, the United States’ Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports have consistently portrayed Jamaica as having a rampant problem with ‘child sex tourism’ and ‘sex trafficking’ (both of which are now dubbed modern slavery by some NGOs and politicians). Indeed, TIP reports and the media coverage they prompt give the impression that ‘sex trafficking’ in general and ‘child sex trafficking’ in particular are the most serious problems associated with commercial sex in Jamaica. To respond to this, they invariably argue, the Jamaican government must take a stronger stand against the criminals involved.

Few policymakers or journalists take the time to ask sex workers if they agree with the policies created in the name of protecting them. Our recent research suggests they do not. We were privileged and honoured to work with the Sex Work Alliance of Jamaica (SWAJ), a grassroots NGO run by and for sex workers, over the course of this project. We interviewed sex workers about the problems they face when doing their job and whether they believe tougher law and increased law enforcement would solve these problems. SWAJ also conducted a survey of 165 sex workers about the violence they face in the course of their work.

Criminalisation and stigmatisation mean that when people are raped, beaten, cheated or robbed, they cannot turn to the police for protection or justice.

We are still working through our data, but several findings are already clear. The majority of our research participants entered sex work due to economic necessity rather than physical force. They nonetheless routinely experience violence, robbery, and exploitation. For sex workers in Jamaica violence is the norm, not the exception. However, that violence is rarely perpetrated by ‘criminal traffickers’ seeking to push somebody into sex work. Instead, it is meted out by customers, members of the public, and police officers because the person on the receiving end is a sex worker.

Furthermore, the people with whom we spoke viewed the violence they experience as a direct result of the criminalisation of sex work and the stigma that comes with its illegality. Male and trans sex workers face this on multiple fronts. On top of being sex workers, buggery remains a criminal offense in Jamaica and the island is home to a great deal of anti-gay prejudice. Criminalisation and stigmatisation mean that when people are raped, beaten, cheated or robbed, they cannot turn to the police for protection or justice. This is doubly true when it is a police officer who victimises them. Thus, far from being eager to see more criminalisation in the guise of anti-trafficking, they instead wanted to see prostitution and homosexuality decriminalised.

There was agreement that minors should not be working in the sex industry. But even then criminalisation was not seen as the answer. Instead, the people we interviewed and surveyed argued again and again that, regardless of age or method of earning money, ordinary Jamaicans would benefit most from policies that create economic and educational opportunities and inclusion, instead of exclusion and criminalisation.

Exclusion, criminalisation and slavery

If we want to make the analytical link between historical slavery on the one hand, and current exploitation and violence on the other, we need to remember that transatlantic slavery racialised the concepts of freedom and slavery. Freedom was coded as white; only those of white European descent were seen as fit for the rights and freedoms of citizenship. Those racialised as black were imagined as too uncivilised and too brutish for freedom. They lacked honour, their word could not be trusted, they needed masters to control and speak for them. This ideology did not end when slavery was abolished.

In the Caribbean as well as the US following abolition, formerly enslaved persons were regarded as a dangerous, threatening, ‘masterless’ class of person. To keep them in check criminal law was increasingly used to discipline and control them. Their efforts to live independently were a particular focus of control and punishment. This fostered an association between blackness and criminality and an intensification of all the dehumanising stereotypes that had been used to justify slavery, which is to say, racist stereotypes about black people as lazy, feckless, untrustworthy, dishonourable, cheats, thieves and liars.

The Jamaican government spends more money servicing debt than on education and welfare combined.

In Jamaica, those stereotypes continue to be applied to individuals who cannot access the types of education and employment that confer ‘respectability’ and belonging. This is a significant portion of the population. Jamaica was never compensated for the ravages caused by centuries of colonisation and slavery, and its inhabitants have further suffered under the stringent conditions imposed upon them by international lenders and austerity packages tied to loans. The Jamaican government currently spends more money servicing debt than on education and welfare combined. As a result, large numbers of Jamaicans are unable to secure the basic education required to get even low paid, precarious work in tourism.

The tourism industry extends and deepens those lines of exclusion. All-inclusive package deals, for instance, enclose tourists behind fences and razor wire and security systems, making it difficult for those on the other side to make a living selling jewellery, tours, drinks and fruit to tourists. Indeed, private security or the tourism police will chase off a local beach seller if she so much as sits on a sun lounger to show a tourist her wares. Poor Jamaicans are regarded with suspicion and hostility, policed as potential threats. And though they often have many ingenious and creative ideas for small businesses and independent entrepreneurship, they are shut out from opportunities to realise their projects. They cannot secure loans to start businesses. Many cannot even get a bank account because those who are poor and unemployed are assumed to be scammers and scoundrels.

Post-colonial, post-slavery black sex workers vs. the British Home Office

Sex workers are treated with even less respect than beach vendors, and not just by the Jamaican police. The British Home Office, despite its commitment to combat human trafficking, treated our local partners with suspicion and distain when they applied for visas to help us present our findings at the British Academy, which funded our research.

We invited members of the SWAJ team to join us for two events in London in early April, one of which was titled “Talking Trafficking With Sex Worker and LGBTQ Voices From Jamaica”. In the end, however, only the director, Miriam Haughton, was allowed into the UK. The experience of our other partners speaks volumes about the way in which contemporary talk of ‘modern slavery’ works to deflect attention from the afterlives of actual transatlantic slavery and colonialism.

Our partners paid a large amount of money to apply for visas to enter the UK to attend our launch events. They supplied letters of invitation from the British Academy stating the purpose of their visit to the UK, and noting that the visit would be fully funded. We booked their flights and their hotel accommodation, and sent them proof of this to take to their visa interviews. But despite all this evidence, UK Visas and Immigration refused them visas and implicitly accused them of being liars, cheats and criminals. Here is an extract from one refusal letter:

I am not satisfied that you are a genuine visitor or that you have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable costs in relation to your visit without working or accessing public funds … I am not satisfied as to your intentions in wishing to travel to the UK ... I am not satisfied that you genuinely intend a short visit only … and that you will leave the UK at the end of the visit.

What gave UK Visas and Immigration the gall to insult these applicants, to accuse them of lying despite all the evidence to the contrary, to refuse them entry, and then to keep their money? The answer links closely to our research findings. They dare to do all these things because poor Jamaicans are still not regarded as the proper subjects of freedom, and so are still not valued as persons of honour.

Lyndsey Stonebridge has recently argued that rather than becoming subjects of human rights law in the post-World War II era, as European refugees did, the displaced and dispossessed peoples of the global south became objects of humanitarian attention, separate and unequal from the ‘international community’ that claims to act on their behalf. One consequence of this is that European and North American researchers and experts can freely roam the globe, while the mobility of their counterparts in the global south continues to be pathologised and heavily restricted. Jamaicans can contribute to research on ‘modern slavery’ – in fact, local partners are required for many British funding applications – but are not guaranteed a place alongside British academics and policy makers when that research is discussed. Emancipation from slavery was not, and apparently still is not, the same thing as freedom and equality.

Decriminalisation and beyond

Criminalisation and marginalisation are social forces that have been critical to the application of colonial and post-colonial state power. In this respect, Jamaicans fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work and consensual acts of same-sex intimacy are part of the wider struggle to undo colonialism and transform oppressive practices maintained by post-independence states. That struggle is hindered, not helped, by the dominant global north discourse on ‘trafficking and modern slavery’ and its overwhelming preoccupation with criminal law and law enforcement in global south countries like Jamaica.

Policy attention needs to shift to the factors that actually leave our research partners and participants vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Rather than talking ‘trafficking’, we need to be talking about matters such as: tackling marginalisation and criminalisation; eliminating international debt; combatting tax evasion and avoidance by big businesses; and making reparations for the historical wrongs of slavery and colonialism. The latter is a complex challenge, but one very simple first step the UK could take is to completely remove all immigration controls on people from former British colonies.

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