Women and Children First? Trafficking as a Labor Issue


January 11th is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and RH Reality Check is featuring a series this in collaboration with Race Talk to pay respect to those who’ve experienced this severe human rights abuse.  The series, edited by Juhu Thukral, includes a look back at the history of anti-trafficking efforts and where they have led us, and thinking about the most effective path forward to prevent others from being trafficked.

Recently in U.S. media and public policy discourses alike, the term “human trafficking” has become synonymous with “trafficking into sex work,” and this in turn has been equated with “sexual slavery” and “prostitution.”  Human trafficking, while primarily an issue of coerced labor–and sometimes coerced movement–is rarely seen as a labor issue.  Instead, it has been framed almost exclusively as an issue of “Violence against Women” or “Sexual Violence.”

Yet in trafficking cases the labor involved is not predominantly sexual labor, nor does the violence encompassed in trafficking always involve sexual violence.  The forms of violence enacted in human trafficking are numerous and varied:  racial, economic, imperialist, and sexual (and then, not just against women).  It’s no wonder that the American public has missed these “subtle nuances” of human trafficking, with the kinds of stories that have dominated our media.

Also, the federal government has focused its efforts almost exclusively on prosecution within the sex industry, even though the second clause of The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines “severe forms of trafficking” as:  “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

In my research in the United States, I have found that this second clause could be applied to every sector where immigrant workers are prevalent, and their race, class, gender, immigration status, and lack of worker rights make them vulnerable to extreme labor exploitation. Yet U.S. media and the American public are generally either unaware or uninterested in anything but the sensationalized issue of trafficking into sex work.  This is despite the fact that anti-trafficking advocates across the country consistently report that in the United States the industry people are most commonly trafficked in and into is domestic work, not sex work.

The U.S. government itself has questioned the effectiveness of anti-trafficking policy, with a 2006 State Department report noting that in the first five years since the passage of the TVPA, only 616 people benefited from the law through receiving T-visas (a form of immigration status offered to some trafficking survivors), while in 2002 the State Department estimated that 50,000 people are trafficked within and into the United States every year.

Advocates say that this gap can easily be accounted for by people trafficked in industries other than the sex industry, who are not recognized or treated as such under the law.  I’d argue further that the government’s true goal in the intensive focus on trafficking into sex work is not to serve victims of trafficking but instead to serve its own agenda to:  a) criminalize sex workers and b) divert attention from forms of trafficking that could be identified as U.S. government-sponsored.  These include instances of labor trafficking that are tolerated by the government or, worse, directly orchestrated through U.S. policy and practice, such as guest worker programs dating back to the Bracero era, in which primarily Mexican men were imported and exploited as temporary low-wage workers to fill WWII labor “shortages.”

Two recent cases of extreme labor abuses of immigrant workers in construction and meatpacking industries illustrate this phenomenon well.  These cases are examples of the way violations of labor rights can become a trafficking situation.  In 2006, Signal International, a marine construction company, hired 500 skilled metalworkers from India under the H-2B guest worker program, to repair oil rigs off the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. The workers paid recruiters $20,000 each and were promised green cards to work legally in the United States.  They suffered deplorable living conditions, including 24 people to a room in work camps, for which they had $1,050 deducted from their wages.  They began organizing, including staging a hunger strike, and turned themselves in to the Justice Department, hoping for assistance.

Recent evidence has emerged that a government agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had helped and advised Signal how to remove workers who had organized, in particular.  When the workers began to complain, the company retaliated and received guidance from ICE on how to remove “chronic whiners” who were threatening to organize broader protests, “if for no other reason than to send a message to the remaining workers that it is not in their best interests to try and ‘push’ the system.”

Similarly, a case involving workers at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa were subjected to more than just a raid in May of 2008, when 389 people were arrested and detained.  Of the mostly Guatemalan migrants, about 30 were women and about 18 were children between the ages of 14 and17.  Despite these gross violations of labor and child labor laws by Agriprocessors, the migrant workers arrested at the plant were treated as criminals rather than victims and targeted to be “made examples of” by the U.S. government.  They were charged with aggravated identity theft, with a minimum sentence of two years in prison. (Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May of 2009 that this charge cannot be applied unless a person knowingly uses the identity of a real person, this ruling came too late for the Postville workers.)  Many of the detainees served prison sentences for 5 months, while some of the managers at the plant (with 9,311 identified counts of child labor violations) were able to flee the country shortly after the raid.

These two cases represent labor exploitation of workers certainly fitting the definition of trafficking.  In the Agriprocessors case, teenaged children were employed in the slaughter of animals with power machinery yet because they were not engaged in commercial sex, they were not identified as trafficking victims.  Nor were the children who were separated from their parents who were arrested, detained, and deported.  The media barely picked up these stories, yet we are bombarded with stories of child sexual slavery every day and told that this is the central story, the “face” of human trafficking.  While U.S. media and policymakers distract us with the smoke and mirrors of combating trafficking worldwide, the U.S. government plays more than an incidental role in violations that could well be identified as trafficking here in the United States.

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