The US' troubling turn as global anti-trafficking sheriff

 The much-lauded US Tier ranking system monitors foreign governments' efforts to combat trafficking. But this obscures the US' role in actually creating conditions which contribute to labor exploitation and trafficking.

Siobhán McGrath
26 August 2014

The Thai fishing industry has recently been the subject of international criticism for its links to trafficking. But what do the much-lauded anti-trafficking metrics obscure? Flickr/Coby Bidwell. Some rights reserved. 

The fight against human trafficking and contemporary slavery seems to transcend political affiliations. Left, right and centre appear to agree: there is no place for such horrors in the 21st century. Celebrating the cross-political appeal of this issue may, however, blind us to the logic underpinning anti-trafficking and anti-slavery initiatives–and the politics involved. Not only are these initiatives sometimes influenced more by geopolitical alliances than an analysis of where efforts could have the most impact, but they also frequently obscure the role of migration policy and neoliberalism in creating the conditions for labour exploitation and abuse.      

In particular, the US government’s Tier Rankings have been getting a lot of good press lately. The rankings, which classify countries’ efforts to combat trafficking according to a scale from Tier 1 (the best), Tier 2, Tier 2 watchlist to Tier 3 (the worst), are part of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. By accepting the premise that the Tier rankings are an effective anti-trafficking tool, the problematic politics behind these rankings are being legitimised. This is in spite of long-standing critiques of the rankings.

The rankings, only one of the anti-trafficking measures taken by the US, are based on eleven minimum standards to eliminate trafficking. Confusingly, the US generally categorizes forced labour as a subset of trafficking rather than the other way around. But the problem with the Tier rankings is that they define not only what counts as trafficking, but what counts as a response to trafficking.  

Thailand’s ‘automatic’ downgrade to a Tier 3 ranking gained legitimacy by occurring as it did in the wake of The Guardian’s investigations into ‘Thai prawn slavery.’ This reporting demonstrated that debt bondage, among migrant workers on fishing boats in Thai waters, is integral to the supply chain of prawns sold in UK and US supermarkets. Reports in the New York Times, Al Jazeera and The Guardian itself are largely positive about the rankings. The Guardian refers to the Tier rankings as not only a "benchmark" but a "gold standard". The articles highlight that Thailand is joining a group of seemingly ‘bad’ countries in Tier 3, such as North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe and Saudia Arabia, but Cuba (consistently Tier 3) and Venezuela (downgraded from Tier 2 watchlist to Tier 3) go unmentioned.

The Guardian at least acknowledges the long-standing criticisms of the rankings by a number of academics and advocates. An opinion piece by Anne Gallagher adds some depth. It recognizes that the rankings sometimes correlate more strongly with diplomatic relations than with anti-trafficking policy. The disproportionate attention given to trafficking "for sexual exploitation" over forced labour is also acknowledged. A lack of quantitative data on the extent of trafficking is mentioned. The piece hints at the problematic boundary between precarious forms of migration, unregulated labour and trafficking. It even acknowledges that human rights can be part of the ‘collateral damage’ of actions taken in the name of combatting trafficking. It speaks volumes about the politics of anti-trafficking as enshrined in the Tier rankings that a crackdown on migrants can be publicly framed as an anti-trafficking measure.

Yet in spite of all this, the rankings are found to be the "best measure we have". With only a mild lament that anti-trafficking leadership could be more multilateral, the assessment seems to be that the US has graduated from an "amateurish effort to play global sheriff" on human trafficking to a professional and authoritative role as, well, global sheriff on human trafficking. The Tier rankings are seen as effective in influencing other countries’ policies. The critiques related in the piece are rendered more technical than political. Yet the issue is entirely political. The piece ends with reference to the "political, economic and structural forces that facilitate exploitation". Yet the Tier rankings are not external to these ‘structural forces,’ but rather embedded within them.

The US assesses anti-trafficking efforts in terms of three ‘p’s, prosecution, protection and prevention, to which it has added three ‘r’s of rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration. But some other ‘r’s might be more central: responsibility, regulation, and rights. In terms of responsibility, the supply chain pressures to produce prawn at a price deemed suitable for UK and US markets, enabling profits to flow to these countries, is clearly a factor. In the context of global inequalities, the extent to which responsibility for the abuses lies with firms and the governments of their home countries (and of their markets) is a key question. It is a question the Tier rankings divert our attention from, placing the onus squarely on the government of the country where the abuses take place.

In terms of regulation, the US has been a key proponent of liberalization and deregulation of labour markets as part and parcel of a neoliberal vision of development. Beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, the US (and the UK) have been at the forefront of efforts to get ‘developing countries’ to open up to trade and investment, remove protections for national industry and reduce protections and support for workers. These efforts have been conducted in part through trade agreements, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The logic is that this should create opportunities for business, leading to economic growth and therefore job creation, and as such constituting development. The Thai government participated in this wave of neoliberalisation, removing barriers to trade and financial flows, withdrawing protections for domestic industry and privatizing state-owned enterprises.

For many workers, this meant increasing precarity and competition for jobs, only compounded in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s when budgets for social welfare were cut within the wider context of economic recession. The reality is that liberalization and deregulation make workers vulnerable to the very abuses which are deemed to constitute labour trafficking. For migrant workers, particularly those without employment authorization, this context is exacerbated when they are treated as outside the scope of labour rights and protections. The Tier rankings take account mainly of regulation on trafficking and forced labour per se. But this regulation should not be seen in isolation from the wider regulatory landscape which creates the possibilities of exploitation and abuse. And the US has had an historical role in shaping this landscape. 

This leads to perhaps the most important ‘r’: rights. At the same time that The Guardian story was hitting the headlines, a crackdown on undocumented migrants appeared to be starting in post-coup Thailand, resulting in tens of thousands of migrants attempting to flee the country each day–justified by Thai officials in the name of combatting trafficking and forced labour. It speaks volumes about the politics of anti-trafficking as enshrined in the Tier rankings that a crackdown on migrants can be publicly framed as an anti-trafficking measure.

Since the 2010 report, the US has included itself in the rankings, unsurprisingly placing itself in the highest Tier 1 category. The 2014 report relates allegations of trafficking experienced by those on H-2A, H-2B, A-3, G-5 and J-1 visas. Recommended solutions, however, focus on better informing workers of their rights–rights which are inaccessible precisely because these visas tie workers to their employers. The more effective measure, allowing workers to change employers, is not conceived of in the report. Nor is regularising the status of millions of undocumented workers conceived of as a potential anti-trafficking measure in the report.

Much has been said and done in the name of fighting trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ in recent years, unfortunately not all for the good. The media consensus seems to be that the Tier rankings are an effective tool, even a "gold standard". In ignoring or minimizing criticisms of the rankings, the press has been lacking an independent and critical stance. Yes, the government of Thailand should do far more to protect the rights of migrants and workers. But this should not legitimate the Tier rankings. The flaws of the rankings are not technical, but political.

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