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The Overlap Between Sex and Labor Trafficking
September 26, 2019

Earlier this month, we shared a piece on 10 Things You Might Not Know about Forced Labor. This week, we’re delving a little deeper into a couple of elements where sex trafficking and labor trafficking overlap–commonalities they sometimes share that, at least as far as we’ve seen, haven’t been highlighted much in public awareness.

For help with this topic, we talked with Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director of Freedom United, an organization which draws attention to issues of forced labor abuses around the world and helps coordinate campaigns of collective action to bring solutions.

Commonality #1: Gender-Based Violence

We tend to think of sex trafficking and labor trafficking as phenomena that happen independently of each other. However, that’s not always the case. For example, there can be cases of sexual abuse and sexual violence in a commercial setting, as was the case with garment workers in the supply chain for companies like H&M, Gap, Nike, Target, and Walmart who described being abused on the job and offered lower workloads in exchange for sexual favors.

Sexual abuse can also happen in the domestic setting. One thing that is quite common, according to Ewart-James, is people enslaved in domestic servitude also being sexually exploited. As she says,

“I’ve certainly read a story of a women who’s written about her experience being trafficked from southern Africa to the Middle East into domestic servitude working in a home where she was also sent out to parties specifically to be sexually exploited by a member of the family that was exploiting her for her labor at home.”

Modern slavery is a complex issue that can rear its head in a vast myriad of ways. But while there is a human tendency to categorize, it’s important to see how different kinds of abuse can bleed into each other–for if you are concerned about one kind of exploitation, it means inherently a need to pay attention to other kinds.

“Although often we tend to think of sexual exploitation being one form of modern slavery and domestic servitude being another, for example, our natural tendency to categorize can prevent us from considering how these different forms overlap and cross over.” – Joanna Ewart-James

Commonality #2: Victim Re-Victimization

Another often over-looked commonality is when victims get swept up into detention, despite at least some understanding that victims should not be treated as criminals. We touched on this topic regarding sex trafficking victims being detained on prostitution charges, and how this compounds abuse upon abuse.

The same thing can happen in labor trafficking–especially when victims are trafficked from another country, and thus immigration status comes into play. In theory, in cases of labor abuse or undocumented immigrants, law enforcement officials should be screening for potential victims of trafficking. These victims would then be offered some form of state protection: legal protected status, or even housing and some form of remittance to help them either return home or re-enter society. The reality is not always so.

“People who don’t have the right passport or status can find themselves vulnerable to the immigration laws of that country. Whether they are a victim or not sadly often doesn’t seem to be a first consideration and so immigration status erroneously ends up playing a part in the systems’ ability to protect and rehabilitate victims.” – Joanna Ewart-James

For example, Ewart-James pointed to a recent article that revealed over 500 trafficking victims had been swept up into immigration detention. Normally victims in the UK would be offered safe housing and a package of support including money and a support worker.

Showing a commitment to protecting people who are vulnerable is paramount. But it often wars with other priorities. If the priority becomes so that “it’s more important that we crackdown on the sex industry, or it’s more important that we crackdown on immigration, then,” as Ewart-James says, “it’s not surprising that we see those priorities trump someone’s vulnerability and therefore their need for protection.”

Commonality #3: The Need for Systemic Change

Just as ending sex trafficking requires systemic changes–like poverty reduction, valuing people over profit–so too does labor trafficking.

Is Fairtrade the answer to eradicating labor exploitation? Is Fairtrade enough?

Unfortunately, Fairtrade seemed like a promising solution to help consumers identify which products are ethically sourced and ethically made, but it has hit a significant setback now that companies are skirting independent certification. They think they can do sustainability better in-house, or they see an opportunity to suit standards to their own purposes.

“Fair Trade really felt like a silver bullet to those of us who are concerned about how products are brought to us and the experience of those involved in their production. It came with a lot of expectation and promise, seemingly giving us an option so that in our daily lives that we can be reassured that we are not inadvertently exploiting others. However, it’s not proven to be quite the golden goose that we were hoping for.

I think ultimately we need a whole step change in attitudes from the business sector and society that recognizes that profit at any cost cannot be a legitimate objective. Profit needs to be made in a way that isn’t resulting in harming individual’s human rights or exploiting them.” – Joanna Ewart-James

However, the bright side is that there seems to be growing awareness that real, significant change needs to be made. As Ewart-James puts it, “All of us are connected to exploitation through products and services, either directly, or through the supply chain of those goods. It does make it relevant to all of us to try and do something about forced labor and modern slavery.” We can write letters to businesses to really be clear about what we want and expect. We can buy fair trade, secondhand, or reduce purchasing entirely to show our commitment to change. And she points to examples like reducing significantly the child labor used in the cotton industry in Central Asia as evidence that when we mobilize and coordinate we can make change possible. Examples like these, she says, “make us realize that if we’re super clear about what we want and how we can get there, then we can do it.”

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