How the left is losing the war on trafficking

Based on her fieldwork research on Filipinas in the sex industries in Japan, the author examines the traps and contradictions government regulators encounter in their attempt to control trafficking

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas
7 February 2011

Last year represented a milestone in the war on trafficking or what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists is the US war on “a modern form of slavery.” It was the tenth anniversary of the enactment of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) as well as the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, also known as the Palermo Protocols. The war on trafficking has turned a spotlight onto the problems of forced labour, coerced migration, debt bondage and the enslavement of countless individuals worldwide. It has also forged unlikely alliances, bringing together right and left, feminists and evangelical Christians, and Republicans and Democrats. After all, no one can argue against the immorality of enslavement.

But despite the universal outrage, both left and right should be wary of this unlikely alliance between them. In the war on trafficking, the left should be alarmed by the considerable influence US human trafficking policy has around the world, the lack of any substantive account of the ways in which segmented labour markets and the presence of shadow economies promote trafficking, and the way this war inadvertently promotes the image of the helpless woman needing rescue. We have to ask, why does the US dictate how other countries address the problem of trafficking? How does the Right make sense of the oppressive labor market structures that create inequalities and leave individuals at risk of forced labor? Does the Left see the situation of these individuals in the same way? Lastly, why has the war on trafficking disproportionately focused on women in the sex industry? Is this war then spurred on by the impulse to protect women from enslavement or to save them from prostitution?


Photos from the field

I raise these questions not merely to lend precision to my suspicions over the alliance of the left and right in the war on trafficking but to call attention to our failure to see human trafficking as a structural problem – one caused by the absence of rights for migrant workers. Trafficking is primarily understood outside its structural context. I am afraid the Left has remained complacent in the war on trafficking and has agreed with the solutions first imposed under the Bush government and for the most part maintained by the Obama administration. At the moment, we have top-down solutions in which the United States has universally implemented the one-size-fits-all template of the 3Rs (rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration) and 3Ps (prosecution, protection, and prevention). Countries that fail to design a solution to trafficking that abide by these two models are ostracized in the annual US Trafficking in Persons Report. These solutions, however, do not get at the root causes of trafficking. They do not call attention to the vulnerabilities engendered by exclusionary migration policies that limit the citizenship rights of migrants, or to the segmented labour markets that relegate migrants to the shadow economy.

The words ‘human trafficking’ and ‘trafficking victim’ conjure up images of someone held against their will, shackled, and enslaved. Yet, the definition of trafficking that has been advanced in the Palermo Protocol is more specific but at the same time much broader than enslavement. Trafficking is constituted by a three-part process; it must entail, first, the transportation of an individual, second, under conditions of fraud, coercion or deception, and third, for the purpose of their exploitation, with exploitation specifically meaning sexual exploitation, enslavement, forced labour, or servitude. Many argue that it is impossible to access real victims of trafficking. This leaves us in a Catch-22; the supposed inaccessibility of trafficked victims is often used to justify unsubstantiated claims of trafficking and the development of solutions that are not based on the actual experiences of trafficked victims.

I did it my way

Yet, to fully understand this problem, we need the perspective of the presumed victims of trafficking. In 2005 and 2006 I managed to enter the community of what was considered at the time to be the largest group of sex-trafficked people in the world: migrant Filipina hostesses, who the US Department State insisted were forced into sexual exploitation by the yakuza – in other words, organized crime syndicates. I spent nine months in Tokyo where I worked alongside them as a hostess in a working-class club frequented by members of the yakuza. The identification of migrant Filipina hostesses as trafficked persons directly affected their migration, immediately resulting in a drastic decline in their numbers by around 90 percent from 82,741 in 2004 to 8,607 in 2006. While many would see this decline as a victory in the war on trafficking, I actually see this as a step back for Filipino women. It has threatened any advancements they had secured in labour migration, and forced their return to the Philippines.

Migrant Filipina hostesses go to Japan of their own volition. This calls into question their identification as trafficked persons. For the most part, no one has forced or coerced them to seek work in Japan. They were not drugged, taken on a plane, and trapped in a hostess club. No one lied to them and explicitly told them that they would only be singing and dancing on stage. With few exceptions, they go to Japan knowing that they will have to flirt with customers at a club. Clubs do not even require them to engage in prostitution or for that matter subject them to forced sexual exploitation.


Photos from the field

Human trafficking, or modern day slavery, is without doubt a problem that threatens individuals around the world, including Filipina hostesses in Japan. The luring of young Mexican women to the United States and their entrapment in brothels by members of the Cadena-Sosa family and the imprisonment of 72 Thai garment workers forced to work for $2 an hour in El Monte, California are two strong testaments to the vulnerability of migrant workers to modern day slavery. In the case of Filipina hostesses, migration arguably strips them of their freedom and autonomy. Middlemen brokers, for instance, withhold their passports at both the countries of origin and destination, retaining their salary until the end of their three or six month contract, and penalizing those who quit before their contract ends. While many might see these conditions as proof positive that Filipina hostesses are trafficked persons, this perspective in effect rids them of their agency, failing to consider their own choice in entering into a relationship of indenture, and discounting the financial gains that they can make as indentured persons. The uncomfortable fact is that Filipina hostesses – who usually are among the poorest of the poor in the Philippines – willingly agree to their relation of indenture prior to migration. Choosing between indenture and poverty, they evaluate their limited choices and knowingly enter into those relations with middlemen brokers.

Unacceptable conditions

However, indenture is an unacceptable condition of migration. Hostesses need to have the flexibility to quit their jobs, which they currently cannot do because various protectionist laws such as the policy that their labour conditions in Japan must abide by labour laws in the Philippines leave them entirely dependent on brokers. Ironically, because of this particular policy, the broker and not the club owner in Japan is the official employer of the Filipina hostess. Yet, the solutions of the 3Ps and 3Rs fail to address the problem of indenture. In fact, the solutions implemented by Japan, following the recommendation of the US Department of State, have not increased but instead steadily decreased their autonomy, by tightening the stranglehold of the broker over them. For example, after their identification as trafficked persons, Japan increased the performance arts training requirement for prospective migrants, a move meant to ensure their professional status but one that effectively increases their debt to the broker responsible for training them.

Many anti-trafficking pundits actually see the “rescue” of Filipina hostesses and the drastic decline in their number as a victory in the war on trafficking. However, many of the Filipina hostesses I met in Japan resent the intervention of the United States and reject the solution of ‘rescue’ that has been imposed on them. For them, working in Japan has been their sole path of economic mobility from abject poverty in the Philippines. From their perspective, their identification as trafficked persons and the consequent denial of their reentry into Japan has not led to their rescue but has instead resulted in the loss of their occupation.


The author with customer

What do we make of this conflicting view? Does indenture automatically result in trafficking? An indentured worker who wishes to quit her job but is unable to do so would be a trafficked person. But what if the indentured worker wishes not to quit her job? If we are to recognize the vulnerability of migrant hostesses to trafficking, then the challenge for us is to construct policies that would increase their control over their labour and migration. We would not focus on rescuing hostesses and prosecuting traffickers, but instead we would revisit migration policies worldwide, including various exclusionary laws that limit migrant labourers to contract labour or policies that criminalize undocumented migrants. We would work towards implementing policies that ensure migrants have greater control over their labour and their migration. Human trafficking is not a problem of criminality but it occurs because of the limited rights of migrant workers.

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