Trafficking: The globalisation of weak thinking and dumb language

hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.


–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

10 thoughts on “Trafficking: The globalisation of weak thinking and dumb language

  1. Bobby

    Very true! While some argue whether to use ‘human trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘modern slavery’ or whatever, indeed the best would be to address separate injustices separately. I already quite liked it when part of this was published in the New Republic last week.

    As for weak thinking and dumb language, an in particular, dumb campaigns against trafficking and ‘slavery’, I just wrote this ’14 fun and easy ways to #EndSlavery’ the other day – bgerasimov blogspot com

    1. laura agustin Post author

      I documented a number of such grassroots efforts and then stopped. That ordinary folks do this stuff is conventional for all big social movements, and I guess they always look silly. The government bureaucrats are more my target!

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  4. David

    Here in South Africa n new trend of trafficking is emerging. The basics being:

    Babies and children are removed from their families without due process, Government officials are part of this syndicate. Substance users are mostly targeted. While the removers themselves are substance abusers.

    The syndicate then get donations for the “rescued children” from the factories generating funds allowing them luxuries(double story houses) and to support their habits(I know their drinking habits+ photos). At the same time they act as “Safe Houses” that entitle them too “Foster Care Grants” payable by Government.

    The indication seems that donations are dependent on the amount of children removed.

    The best part being I reported 10 cases to the Police(Hawks) 8 months ago but these police are still determining if it is HT cases.

    Like you said…to put it in simple terms… if the Police cant connect sex to the act it’s probably not HT….how stupid actually???

  5. John Kane

    I would love to see comments that are angry at you for daring to say such things about their noble cause because that would mean you are NOT just singing to the choir. The truth will break thru the hyperbole – I hope. So many of these media / hysteria driven issues could change our overall way of life if left unchallenged. I am a student of demography doing research in one of the largest “adult entertainment” centers in the world and nothing – nothing! – looks like the common narrative we are taught to believe about sex world. I meet happy women NOT from broken homes, no pimps, age of first sex over 17, age when paid for first time over 24, and no physical violence – repeat, NO physical violence – not here! If I thought the right people were reading this I would suggest they demand their donations back – –

  6. Tulika Jain

    Previously this started for the requirement of people needed for work in home and fields and the trend continue to work later on the other need like physical pleasure and more.
    NOw it is done for money exchange as everything is commercialized and people are getting greedy to get money by any means.
    Few decades back it was just seen in developing or undeveloped countries like Nepal Bhutan Thailand India etc. but now it has expanded to the developed coutries like America, Russian, Japan, Germany, Parague, France and much more.
    It is shameless that people do not respect other humans as whatever one is working, he/she is working for the living and everyone should respect that but not promote human trafficking at any cost.

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  8. Jimmi

    I would love to see remarks that are irate at you for setting out to say such things in regards to their respectable purpose since that would mean you are NOT simply singing to the choir. Reality will break through the metaphor – I trust. Such a significant number of these media/agitation driven issues could change our general lifestyle whenever left unchallenged. I am an understudy of demography doing research in one of the biggest “grown-up excitement” focuses on the planet and nothing – nothing! – resembles the basic account we are educated to accept about sex world. I meet upbeat ladies NOT from broken homes, no pimps, time of first sex more than 17, age when paid for first time more than 24, and no physical brutality – rehash, NO physical viciousness – not here! On the off chance that I thought the ideal individuals were perusing this I would recommend they request their gifts back.


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