It was early 2000. My colleagues from GAATW International Secretariat and I were in a small village in Battambang province of Cambodia. With us were colleagues from Cambodia Women’s Development Agency (CWDA), one of our member organisations from the country. Our Feminist Participatory Action Research project focussing on Cambodia and Vietnam had reached its ‘Action’ phase and the community researchers were taking us to meet some of the trafficked women who participated in the research. One of the ‘Actions’ was providing ‘Assistance’ to trafficked women. Most of the women had chosen to start small businesses and a few had opted to return to school. The women we spoke to were enthusiastic and hopeful that their future life would be better than what they had experienced in the past. They talked about their fear and excitement about returning to school as older students. They discussed the challenges of running a little noodle shop or a small salon in their locality and how they must be careful about family using up all their profits.
One young woman, let’s call her Kanya, was the most talkative person in the group. She was overjoyed about having been able to return to school. She was happy that she looked younger than her real age and did not attract much curiosity from her younger classmates. Kanya tried out her few sentences in English on me and was thrilled when she understood my reply. When the meeting finished, she insisted that we should visit her family. Her house was on our way back to Battambang so we agreed to drop by. As our car stopped near Kanya’s house and we went down along with her, a small crowd started to form in the lane. All eyes were on us. A group of people, mostly young girls and some boys, followed us as we walked towards her house. They were asking questions to Kanya and looking at us. The crowd stayed on for the entire half hour or more that we were at Kanya’s place talking to her parents. Her mother told us how keen Kanya had always been about her education, how it was lack of money that had forced her to discontinue her studies and how grateful they were about the support she was receiving from ‘the project.’ She also said that she was worried about Kanya not earning anything because she was back in school.
On the way back I asked our Khmer colleagues if the young girls who were crowding around Kanya’s house were going to school. ‘Most of them would not have had any schooling and others might have dropped out. Many must be working to contribute to the family income,’ I was told. Coming from India, this was not a new scenario for me. What was new was education support as victim assistance. I was new to anti-trafficking work, new to the NGO world and not familiar with these action steps. ‘What happens to those who are not trafficked? There must be many Kanyas among those children and they must be wondering how and why she got the support to study while they did not. How long can this project support her education? Is it not the state’s responsibility to ensure education for all children? Her mother is already worried about the loss of income because of her return to school. What if she is forced to pull her out of school? Are there other NGOs advocating for the right to education for all?’ I went on and on. My colleagues understood my concerns. In fact, they also had very similar worries. We were convinced that the assistance that may come to a trafficked person is by its very nature temporary. If it reaches the person at the right time, it will have some positive impact but victim assistance alone is not enough and it certainly cannot replace the state’s responsibilities towards its citizens.
That was more than twenty years ago. Not many NGOs were working on trafficking then. Negotiations on the UN instrument which we now know as Palermo Protocol were almost complete but it was not adopted yet. Obviously, states had not developed or amended their anti-trafficking legislation in line with the Palermo Protocol. There were not many books, reports and toolkits on how to address the problem of human trafficking.
Now, twenty years on, the anti-trafficking community is huge. Every country under the sun has taken some steps to deal with the challenge of human trafficking. There is no dearth of good research either. And yet, data on the estimated number of people in trafficking or forced labour situations keeps getting bigger. Where are we, the anti-trafficking community, going wrong? Perhaps the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in the 20th Anniversary year of the Palermo Protocol is a moment for reflection and course correction.
As I think of anti-trafficking measures around the world, I cannot but acknowledge the good work that has been done by state and non-state actors over the last two decades. Awareness of trafficking has increased at all levels, laws and policies have been enacted, mechanisms have been created, trafficked persons are receiving assistance, some have been able to receive compensation or residence permits, and traffickers are being punished even though the number is still quite small. Most importantly, the anti-trafficking community has also shown some degree of self-reflexiveness and criticised the human rights violations caused by measures to address trafficking. So there is some room for cautious optimism.
But it seems to me that somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the forest for the trees. We have forgotten that anti-trafficking measures are not the panacea for all the problems in the world. Not even for all the human rights violations in the context of labour and migration. We have ignored the fact that trafficking is a result or an outcome of misguided socio-economic policies and if we want to prevent trafficking our social analysis would need to be more rigorous. In the anti-trafficking community, we have a tendency to identify poverty and unemployment as some of the root causes of trafficking. Rarely do we stop to ask why resource-rich countries and communities are so poor. We do not ask what policy decisions of states might be creating inequality and rendering a large number of people vulnerable to exploitation. For example, anti-trafficking research typically does not look at the link between erosion of labour rights and rise in labour exploitation. Neither does it analyse if state neglect of subsistence farming results in distress migration and acceptance of precarious work. Had we made those connections, our trafficking prevention work would have gone beyond awareness raising or providing safe migration information and our advocacy efforts would have sought collaboration with labour rights and food security movements.
A large part of the social assistance work for trafficked persons is carried out by NGOs. This work is extremely demanding and social workers and counsellors deserve our appreciation. However, it is important to remind ourselves that victim assistance, like any emergency assistance, must be complemented by long-term rights protection by the state. When that does not happen, a large number of people continue to be vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Over the years there has been a growing move to integrate insights from behavioural psychology into victim assistance work. Concepts such as PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome have been liberally used. A couple of years ago, a colleague from a country where mental healthcare is largely unavailable for the general population was suggesting that specialist hospitals should be built to take care of the abused migrant workers and trafficked persons. ‘Many women come back mad,’ he said. While we cannot deny that some trafficked persons need professional therapy, in most cases it will serve us well to analyse and address the material basis of psychological stress.
The trafficking narrative needs a victim and a perpetrator. People who are cheated, coerced and abused and those who cheat, exploit and abuse. So while speculating about a possible increase in trafficking in the wake of COVID-19 we talk about unscrupulous agents and traffickers who would target vulnerable people. But we don’t critique the actions of states who have increased working hours without overtime pay, employers who have forced workers to work without protective gear or have not paid them their wages. The narrative of trafficking as a criminal act committed by ‘evil’ people hides state and private sector complicity. Interviews with trafficked persons have showed that there are many shades of grey in this black and white story of trafficking and there are many reasons why people sometimes prefer to put up with exploitative working conditions than being labelled ‘trafficked’.
A 2017 report brought out by ILO and Walk Free Foundation estimated that globally there were 40.3 million people in modern slavery. An updated estimate will most certainly be higher. Regardless of the accuracy of this and other similarly large numbers, it is obvious that many workers around the world live and work in abysmally bad conditions. If there were any doubts about the precarity in the world of work, COVID-19 has dispelled them for everyone. The definition in the Palermo Protocol gave us guidance regarding the elements that constitute trafficking. The Protocol was aiming to address a crime that was exceptional, a form of exploitation that was extreme. Looking at the realities around labour and migration today, we find that elements of trafficking are more likely the norm than exception. Even if the state and non-state actors were to create mechanisms to identify all the victims of trafficking and assist them, would those measures stop human trafficking? They most certainly will not. This then might be the moment to note that the anti-trafficking framework was simply not designed to deal with exploitation at such a large scale. Our anti-trafficking measures will be more effective if we recognise their strengths and limitations.
As civil society actors, we need to decide on the focus of our work. If providing assistance to trafficked persons is our main area of work, then that is what we should do. If enabling trafficked persons to access justice is our focus then that is the area in which we need to build our expertise. But if our goal is to prevent trafficking and our vision is of a just and fair world, our strategies need to be different. Crimes, exploitation or rights violation have always been part of our lives and will probably always be. By choosing to bring ‘exploitation’ in so many spheres of work under one umbrella we have acknowledged that ‘exploitation’ is widespread and the scale of the problem is huge. Now we have to move beyond moral outrage, naming and shaming or even counting. Our social analysis needs to take into account a wide range of policies around development, economic growth and various forms of social injustices. We need to analyse various sectors of work, both formal and informal, understand the conditions of migrant and local workers and advocate for creating or strengthening opportunities for freedom of association and collective bargaining. We need to engage in workers education and inter movement dialogues.
Systemic change may take a very long time to happen. Indeed, some of us may not even see it in our life time. But we can take heart from the fact that many colleagues are consulting with each other and a critical mass of people are slowly collectivising. COVID-19 has created an urgency around building intersectional social justice movements and reimagining the way we live and work.
In the editorial of the April 2020 issue of the journal Globalizations, Barry Gills talks about the ‘triple conjuncture’ of global crises that we are experiencing now. The three spheres of the global crisis are climate change and ecological breakdown; a systemic crisis of global capitalism and neoliberal economic globalisation; and the current global pandemic of COVID-19. The three spheres are deeply interrelated and now rapidly interacting. Their combined effects, Gills says, will bring radical systemic transformation. But this transformation will not happen magically. A new UN instrument will not be able to do it. The legislation, agreements, recommendations and guidelines that we have at various levels are quite enough. In the years to come, the struggle to realise systemic change will be in many locations and many countries. In solidarity with other social justice movements.
On the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons our hope is that we in the anti-trafficking community will utilise the opportunity for reflection created by COVID-19 and review our strategies to stop human trafficking and do the necessary course correction.
Bandana Pattanaik is International Coordinator at GAATW. The Article is published in her blog at-trafficking