Thursday, 5 March 2015

'Labour trafficking' – What's behind the term?

By Dorte Thorsen
A new term - labour trafficking – has crept into the vocabulary surrounding migration facilitated by agents and other intermediaries. It is a timely attempt to shift attention onto the nexus between trafficking and labour migration and to move away from a narrow focus on migrant sex workers as the victims of trafficking. But is labour trafficking a good term? And does it have the same connotations for female and male migrants, and for younger and older migrants?
The definition of trafficking set out in the Palermo Protocol  makes it clear that for migration to be legally defined as trafficking, the migrant must have been recruited, transported or accommodated by another person. This person must have used force, violence, deceit, abuse of power or of the migrant’s vulnerable position and he/she must have been intend to exploit the migrant upon arrival to his or her own ends. As the Protocol is an instrument used by states to combat organised crime, state measures to combat trafficking focus primarily on preventing the movement of persons perceived to be at risk of being exploited and abused for the benefit of the trafficker and on prosecuting people perceived to broker the movement of others to their own financial benefit.This focus tends to blur the distinction between trafficking and smuggling – the illegal transportation of goods or people - especially at a time when global mobility regimes have made it more difficult for many people in the global South to migrate legally.
The tightening of border control, not just in the global North but across the world, has opened a space for migration brokers, who set up business to help potential migrants to go abroad. Brokers come in many shades and do not necessarily operate in a way that is illegal. Some provide guidance on form filling, the safest way to travel, and how to find work at the destination; others travel with the migrant workers they have recruited and facilitate employment for these workers at the destination; others again help procure fraudulent papers and air tickets to expedite the visa application process. Some enrich themselves on the back of migrants, sometimes being unscrupulous about the risks they impose on them; others become brokers just to scrape by or to consolidate their social status. The processes of facilitating migration, smuggling and trafficking people thus overlap in the early stages of migration.
While brokering businesses have proliferated alongside tighter border control, the use of intermediaries is not a new phenomenon, nor is it tied to international migration. It is the commodification that is new, for in many places it is considered strange and, indeed, risky to travel alone, especially for women and girls. Apart from the very real risk of sexual abuse, their respectability may be undermined by suspicion and scurrilous rumours about intimate relationships if travelling by themselves.
On this point local ideas of appropriate behaviour for women of different ages converge with one of the main concerns that has shaped the anti-trafficking discourse, especially in the beginning: the persistent myth that the destination of trafficking is sex work, and that sex workers are women and that these women are trafficked. The overlap is not about appropriate behaviour but about women’s perceived inability to fend for themselves and make good – read sensible and well-considered – migration decisions. Over time, trafficking has come to include a much broader range of concerns - including child labour, domestic servitude, forced labour, forced marriage and child soldiering - and it has become as much of an issue for internal migration as for international migration.
This brings us to the question of how to distinguish between trafficking, smuggling and the facilitation of migration and migrants’ insertion into the labour market at the destination. In principle, the relationship between the migrant and the smuggler ends once the migrant arrives at the destination, while the relationship with the trafficker continues. Reality is, of course, much more complex for the migrants and for authorities dealing with them. The distinction is shaped by moral, economic and political concerns.
When the focus is on migration management – whether international or internal – the division of migrants into ‘innocent, possibly passive, victims of trafficking’ and ‘irregular or unruly, street-living migrants’ is also a distinction between those, who deserve help because they are perceived as victims, and those who don’t, because they have gotten themselves into trouble through risky behaviour. From this perspective, migrants are seen either as having no choice or as having had near-to-full information about all risks involved in migration and to have ignored them. Only, women and children are rarely seen to have such a high level of information.
As a matter of fact, very little empirical evidence exists on the recruitment processes and the continuation of relationships between brokers and migrants at the destination. While some women are forced into sex work, others choose this occupation because they can earn more and can control when to work and when to rest. If they are all treated as victims of trafficking, important questions about unequal labour markets and gender inequity are overlooked.
Similarly, when the focus is on child migrants moral concerns about the right kind of childhood is at its heart of the discussion. Images of lost childhood, unhappy children, very heavy work and, in case of adolescent girls, sexual abuse, are invoked in the name of trafficking and the worst forms of child labour. The youngest children are foregrounded despite the fact that the majority of children migrating in their own right are teenagers over the minimum age for taking employment. For them, migration is a rational strategy to earn money and acquire skills. That they are frequently exploited and deceived by employers is not evidence of trafficking but rather of generic problems in the labour market.
Currently there is a push to work on regularising certain migrant workers and the labour market for migrants to minimise exploitation and unfree conditions. Our panel debate Labour Trafficking? Understanding the use of brokers in women’s and girls’ labour migration in the global South on Friday 6 March in Jubilee 144 at the University of Sussex contributes to the discussion. We outline the realities for women and girls of using brokers and intermediaries in their migration; examine how anti-trafficking interventions have affected female migrants; and explain why these interventions have changed over time. See for full details.
Dr Dorte Thorsen is the Gender Theme Leader for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. She also teaches Anthropology at the University of Sussex.
This blog was originally published as 'Labour Trafficking' - What is behind the term? at