A lot of the attention we pay to the increased risk of trafficking and exploitation for low-wage workers and people struggling on the margins has to do with forecasts of job losses, job shortages, and the inability of incomes to meet the rising costs of living. Youth, in particular, face higher rates of unemployment. It might be tempting to think people facing these situations can and should get any job that will help make ends meet. However, it isn’t quite that simple. It’s not just having work that matters. Quality of work matters too.
If the jobs available aren’t good enough, it creates incentives to turn to other sources of income to make ends meet.
The Role of Work Quality
We need to pay attention to work quality because it’s not always just about survival. It’s also about dignity. Being able to feed your family is important, but so too is the sense that one has choices and a say in their life. If you have a job, but it’s arduous and fails to meet real needs, then people will start to open themselves up to other options.
Here are some relevant points from a recent International Labor Organization (or ILO) report:
- The average weekly hours worked per worker is projected to decline in 2023 as a result of economic slowdown, thus limiting earning potential.
- According to the report, “Beyond the gap in employment, job quality remains a key concern. Without access to social protection, many people simply cannot afford to be without a job. They often accept any kind of work, often at very low pay and with inconvenient or insufficient hours. The projected slowdown is therefore likely to force workers to accept jobs of worse quality than they might enjoy in better economic conditions. Furthermore, with prices rising faster than nominal wages, workers will experience rapidly declining disposable incomes even when they can keep their current jobs.”
- Job opportunities for women were largely in the informal sector (“four out of five jobs created in 2022 for women were informal”), which doesn’t have the same protections as formal employment. According to the report, “Informal workers are engaged in economic activities that are either insufficiently covered or not covered at all by formal arrangements in law or in practice. These workers, and also businesses run by informal employers, tend to lack legal recognition, to fail to comply with fiscal obligations, and to face difficulties in entering into commercial contracts. Moreover, informal workers are much more likely to be living in conditions of poverty.”
This combination of jobs of worsening quality, and fewer protections, alongside fewer hours worked should raise alarm bells for people who are concerned about combatting sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation – and here’s why.
One of the mindsets we frequently come across when people explain why they’re willing to accept the risk of trafficking in sexual labor is the belief that it’s just a different part of the body being exploited. If they’re already destroying their hands in manual labor or breaking their backs in other hard, physical labor, what really, in their opinion, is so different about the sex trade?
More to the point, if they are already being exposed to arduous labor in harsh conditions for low pay, why wouldn’t they participate in the sex trade, which offers potentially significantly higher pay? It’s not unheard of to make double or more what one would make on minimum wage.
If they have extra time on their hands because they’re not working their full hours, there’s more time to have a side hustle – and the internet makes it easier than ever to engage in the sex trade. It’s easier to meet clients, there are plenty of sites where they can learn about how to engage in sex work, and there are multiple ways to engage. It offers the sense that one can choose when and how to work (though, of course, this isn’t always true – there is the obvious risk of rape, assault, and violence).
How This Starts to Become Relevant for Us
A recent study by Urban Light in Chiang Mai showed that a majority of their respondents had at least some source of income, yet they still participated in trading sexual services. This suggests that the job opportunities that are present for them are insufficient to meet their needs, so they turn to sexual services to fill the gaps. Many of them engage online with photos or videos, which may feel safer than in person. Or meeting clients online first might offer the sense that they can pre-screen clients. In fact, almost a third of their respondents reported being under the age of 18 when they first started trading sex online. But many risks are still there – and having their images circulating online without their consent is one of their biggest fears, on par with the fear of contracting COVID or HIV/AIDS.
For us at The Freedom Story, working with children and youth, the task is to make clear that sex work is not consensual for underage people, even if they feel it is their choice. The financial pressure, familial pressure, or other pressures that induce youth to try to engage in any form of sex trade are what makes it exploitation. For them, it’s also much harder to gauge the risks of long-term harm that could come from having their images shared online, especially if they believe it’s in the context of a romantic relationship. The internet is so much more easily accessible, with more and more kids spending time online and on social media, and it has an illusion of safety that was never as present in the sex trade in red-light districts or bars and clubs.
For many of our students, our online safety workshops are the few or even only sources they have that will teach them about protecting themselves from online sexual exploitation. As we shared in our recent story about 14-year-old Nin, our trainings on online safety are among her favorite activities because, as she says, “online threats are very close and dangerous. The training taught me how to protect myself from online threats.”
Our students see the relevance of these trainings to their lives, and the trainings keep them aware of the dangers of exploiters online as well as focused on a safer path – education and a chance at something better than the lowest-wage jobs in their future.