PALERMO 20TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
What is exploitation?
Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks
Alf Gunvald Nilsen
The idea of exploitation is at the heart of anti-trafficking protocols and legislation. It is the reason why people are said to be trafficked, and without it human trafficking cannot be shown to exist. Yet there is no agreement on what exploitation actually is – it remains undefined in law and discretionarily applied in practice. So what does it mean? Instead of grappling with this question in the abstract, I speak here from Caribbean experience.
Severe exploitation created the Caribbean, as we know it today. European colonisers conquered the region, appropriated its land and plundered its wealth. They massacred and enslaved its first peoples, the Taino and Kalinago, and imported millions of enslaved Africans as well as European and Asian indentured labourers to work on their coffee and sugarcane plantations. Under colonialism, the land was further exploited for its gold, bauxite and timber, and the climate prized for its health benefits for Europeans. For centuries the Caribbean has provided the raw human and natural resources from which other nations, especially in the global North, have not only economically profited but relied upon for their social and political well-being, prosperity and identity.
The tourist industry is the postcolonial plantation, and Caribbean peoples in many of the islands have few alternatives to working in it for paltry wages under weak health and safety regulations, and with little job security. In tourism, Black and Brown workers provide service labour predominantly as housekeepers and hotel maids, administrative, technical and clerical personnel, gardeners, water-sports operators, cooks, bartenders, waiters, cruise-ship dock workers, taxi drivers, sex workers and entertainers. And they labour within an industry that is designed for the pleasure of visitors from the global North and, by and large, owned and managed by white and foreign corporations.
The story is similar in other sectors. Working conditions in the gold, bauxite and oil mining sectors, all of which are dominated by corporations in the global North, may be even less regulated than in tourism, and the hazards even greater. Off-shore manufacturing plants and call centres rely on a supply of cheap, temporary labour, and throughout the Caribbean economies informal work abounds.
In some scholars’ eyes, the postcolonial Caribbean has resulted in “even more egregious forms of domination, super-exploitation, and dependency” than it experienced under colonialism. So, what does it mean for the Caribbean to talk about ‘exploitation’? And can campaigns aimed at combatting human trafficking and thus aimed at ending exploitation be effective? Or do we need another approach?
Searching for the wrong exploitation
While most Caribbean countries have accepted the UN Protocol in one way or another, the US Department of State and its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports are what pressures Caribbean governments to deliver evidence of combatting human trafficking. They risk economic sanctions or decreased financial aid if they do not. The proof that counts most is the number of convictions of smugglers or persons who employ others in sub-par working conditions. There is a heavy focus on the sex trade, but the agricultural, manufacturing, mining, lumber and fishing industries are targets as well.
Most Caribbean states cannot produce enough satisfactory evidence, but they also cannot afford to lose funds or aid from the US government or to be internationally shamed as trafficking hotspots. They are small, postcolonial states that cannot sustain themselves independent of political, economic and social relations with the rest of the world. As a result, each year many Caribbean countries contort themselves to provide evidence that traffickers and exploiters are ferreted out and locked up or sent away.
Exploitation is a narrow frame that is divorced from the region’s history of colonialism and the wider political economy of globalised capitalism.
These anti-trafficking campaigns are deceptive. They reduce the problem of exploitation to a few incidences of abuse of workers or women, obfuscating historical, colonial and postcolonial causes of inequality for the Caribbean region. They disconnect the link between low-wage work and the broader drive for greater profitability and corporate greed, and between the growing wealth and security of a few and the impoverishment and precarity of the majority. Similarly, dominant narratives regarding sexual exploitation portray women, men and trans as victims of compulsion by rapacious third parties, or the sex work itself as an extension of personal needs and desires. Both narratives effectively reduce exploitation to something that could be avoided by acting either more carefully (i.e. by resisting the lure of traffickers) or more morally (i.e. by keeping sexual intercourse to marriage, monogamy and love).
Exploitation thus is a narrow frame that is divorced from the region’s history of colonialism and the wider political economy of globalised capitalism. It becomes a property of individuals from ‘vulnerable communities’ who are defined as susceptible to manipulation, coercion and false promises or as tempted by consumer goods and lavish lifestyles. They are the ‘victims’ of a few criminals, law-dodgers and informal sector operators who can be rescued and freed from exploitation.
Once defined in these terms exploitation becomes a problem to be addressed by prosecuting people identified as traffickers, by policing the sex trade, and by applying immigration and anti-prostitution laws and policies to identify and remove victims from harm. It is a case of ‘a few bad apples’ who make use of exploited labour for their own benefit and profit, and of isolated incidences of abuse and harm. Exploitation thus is about individual experience instead of a systemic issue.
Can such wrongs ever be made right?
How then can the Caribbean address the issue of exploitation in the contemporary period? I would suggest that we cannot ignore the region’s history of colonial, patriarchal, capitalist plunder, abuse and severe exploitation. We cannot ignore it because it continues today as racialised, gendered and structural inequality between the global North and South, between the rich and poor, and between white and Black peoples.
Undoing the harms that the Caribbean faces today will be difficult, for they are extensive and far-reaching. A global redistribution of wealth, which could in part be made possible through reparations for the millions of enslaved Africans, would be a start. So would the recuperation of land for communal use by Indigenous peoples and their descendants, as well as the destigmatisation and decriminalisation of women’s sexual agency and transactional sexual relations. Such changes would need to go hand in hand with a complete decolonisation of national consciousnesses, as Frantz Fanon once urged.
None of this, of course, can happen quickly or even in our lifetimes. The task begins with an acknowledgement that exploitation is the foundation upon which these postcolonial nations were built and which they continue to live with. It is not a problem that can be eradicated through appeals to moral righteousness, increased state surveillance, carceral politics or through apprehension of weak or corrupt links in the supply chain of goods and services. And anti-trafficking most certainly will not do the job.