Friday, 20 June 2014

Slavery, sex trafficking, exploitation and child labour - some nuances


In the latest episode of Game of Thrones (season 4, episode 10), an old man comes to Daenerys the Targaryen to share his grievance. Daenerys had recently freed the slaves of Mereen and become Queen of the city. However, the peasant doesn't find this action as noble as we and Danny would like to think... You should really see the scene, it's just 2.5 minutes, until around 3:05, because I don't want to type the whole thing and it's very interesting but embedding is disabled for this video, so I can't put it here. But in short, the man explains that when he was a slave, he had a roof over his head and was a teacher to his master's children. Now he's a free man but "he's nothing" and lives on the streets. The conditions in the shelters and food banks (or whatever they are called) that Danny set up, apparently are difficult. "With my master I was a teacher. I had the respect and love of his children", he says. "Your Grace, I ask you to let me sell myself back to Master xxx" is what he wants. "There are many outside, waiting to beg the same of you", he adds. In her infinite wisdom and heavenly gorgeousness, the Mother of Dragons agrees to grant him his request: "... But freedom means making your own choices. I will allow you to sign a contract with your former master..." The man is grateful and exits. (Seriously, though, see the scene, very interesting exchange).

Daenerys freeing the slaves of Mereen a few weeks ago was a beautiful and epic scene (you can see if from this moment or watch the whole video if you like GoT). And what she did was brave, noble and just and so on. And she gave choice and purpose to the previous slaves she freed - they now stand behind her as her soldiers on their own free will. But here in Mereen we have a moral dilemma. Is slavery wrong, degrading and against human dignity? - Of course! Was this man better off as a slave than as a free man? - I think he would say "Of course"!  Or to paraphrase Milton, is it really and always better to be a free man in Hell than serve in Heaven? Are freedom and independence a "one size fits all" solution? 

Similarly in the anti-trafficking world, I notice more and more often the nuances in the personal experiences of trafficked people. What is voluntary and what is forced? Should you submit yourself to exploitation when you have no other means to support yourself and your family? Is it a crime to help a person find a job and then demand payback for your time and efforts? Like the old man from GoT, are the Cambodian prostitutes rescued by Somaly Mam better off as garment factory workers than as "sex slaves"? Who defines the line between helping your parents, and by extension, yourself, and being "deprived of your childhood" through child labour? If people don't regard themselves as victims, why are we so quick to label them "victims", based on definitions and indicators? 

Of course I am fully aware of the cases of trafficking, exploitation, slavery and child labour involving violence, abuse and coercion, but I would like to share my thoughts here on the more grey areas, the nuances, the situations that are wrong from the point of view of the law, the outsiders and society in general, but are more complex from the point of view of the individual that we perceive as the victim. 

Sex trafficking 

This part is pretty much just a shorter version of "Who are these human traffickers?" by Felicia Anna. Anna is a Romanian sex worker in the Amsterdam Red Light District and as such she cannot be dismissed as "unrepresentative" since everyone in The Netherlands will tell you that the majority of prostitutes come from Eastern European. In her blog Anna writes about another side of the Red Light District - one that you will rarely see in anti-trafficking studies. And about the nuances in "sex trafficking". Her post is quite detailed, so I will try to present the idea more concisely here. Whether this is Anna's story or not, I don't know, but I'm sure it's the story of a lot of women (and at least some men) who come to The Netherlands to sell sex. A low-level street/highway prostitute in, for example, my home country Bulgaria, doesn't make a lot of money - from what I've heard, it's 5-10 Euros for a blowjob, and not more than 25 for intercourse and because of the uncertain legal status, prostitutes are often arrested and forced to give sexual services to policemen to avoid being detained. So imagine that a friend or an acquaintance tells one such girl that in the Netherlands she can earn 10 times more and do her job legally. She wants to but she doesn't have any money to move, to settle down, doesn't speak a foreign language and doesn't know the procedures how to get started. He offers to help her - to lend her money, arrange documents, find a place for her to live, a place to work... for a certain price, of course. Now add together the price of a plane ticket, (at least) one month's rent and one deposit, costs for legalisation of a birth certificate, costs for the Chamber of Commerce, for renting a window and who knows what else, and you easily come to 3000 Euros or more, including the cost of the "friend's" time and help. And since she can't start making money as soon as she lands at Schiphol but at least one month later (if everything is to be legal and right) she actually starts off with a huge debt and has to work long hours and meet a lot of men to clear that debt. If, for whatever reason, she can't pay this debt regularly, the "friend" becomes abusive. Now personally I'm not prone to violence and I'm convinced that violence is not the answer but there have been occasions when friends have owed me 1000-2000 Euros for months on and I've really wished I were bigger, stronger and more violent! I mean, banks and other institutional creditors have their ways of getting their money back, right? And they have millions of Euros and plenty of time to wait, while private people - not so much.. Again, I don't condone violence, but I also think that when you borrow money you have to repay it or face the consequences. In anti-trafficking terminology we call this debt bondage and coercion, but in this case, is it really so much different in effect from other business transactions involving credit? 

In my previous job at an NGO providing services to victims of violence in Bulgaria, we would often meet victims of trafficking who refused counselling, shelter or any other services and refused to press charges - they just wanted to go back home (and in some cases probably find another way to migrate to sell sex). Perhaps they were deceived, abused and exploited but did they perceive themselves as victims? - No. And it wasn't necessarily because of dissociation or denial, the trauma, PTSD, Stockholm syndrome or threats of retaliation. It's because they saw the whole experience as going abroad to find a job and make money and ... failing. So then who are we to tell them they're victims more than any of us are victims of society, social prejudice or... capitalism? Why do we claim to know better than them who they are and what they need? 

In the interest of readability, I will continue about labour exploitation and child labour in another post (I've been told my posts are too long!:-) 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

A daily dose of hate - the Wicked Witch from the Northwest

In the week before the Bulgarian elections for European Parliament I stumbled upon the Facebook page of a strange creature - Irena Borisova - an EP candidate from the "Green Party" (therefore - the "wicked witch":-) from the town of Vidin (therefore - from the Northwest:-). On her Facebook page Ms. Borisova had listed what she stands "for" and "against" as a politician. I sympathise with the green cause and traditionally vote green - both here in Amsterdam and in the national elections in Bulgaria (although - for another Green Party). So I agreed with many of her points - more green energy, support for local agricultural production, against the TTIP... But then, seemingly out of nowhere, she was also against "the decadent moral tendencies in Western Europe (gay marriages, incest, paedophilia)". Now this is just an insult to common sense - first of all, there's no such thing as a "gay marriage", it's the same as the "straight marriage" but between people of the same sex; secondly - to put it together with incest and paedophilia is pure populism, as I already wrote in my posts Prostituto part 1 and Part 2; third - to claim that these are "Western values" is beyond populistic, it's Putinesque; and lastly - to hear this from a green politician is a disgrace, to say the least. Just that same day the European Greens had boasted on Facebook that their EP group has supported 100% all policies on LGBT rights. And Ms. Borisova's party is part of the European Greens. Naturally, I immediately informed the European Greens and the Greens in EP on Facebook and Twitter about Ms. Borisova's "principles" and apparently I wasn't the only one who did. They thanked me for bringing this to their attention and assured me that they would "look into it". Of course, I doubt that they can influence the choice of candidates from a national green party or a candidate's convictions but I felt somewhat satisfied that I've ratted her out to them. 

Anyway, I also wasn't the first one to notice this strange outburst of homophobia by the wicked witch. My friend L. had already engaged her in an argument, pointing out the same concerns as I had - that she's green and that it's a "nonsense to put these three things [gay marriage, incest and paedophilia] together". The witch replied that it's not nonsense and it's not even only these three things - "because lately in Western Europe it's become fashionable to open up brothels with animals and demonstrate sexual intercourse in front of 3-4-year-old children". O.M.G! While I can agree that there are all sorts of people in the world and such establishments may exist somewhere in Western Europe, I'm more than certain that they'll also exist in other parts of the world and are in no way a "fashion" but completely illegal. Actually I don't want to comment on the ridiculous claims that the wicked witch makes, I'm sure anyone who reads this will understand me, but I want to list a few other, simply to demonstrate the level of political thought and speech in that place I call my birth country and because the more she tried to engage us in that argument, the sillier she seemed.

Two years later we still haven't ticked the others...
 "Scientists have proved that 'special inclinations' [i.e. homosexuality and transsexuality] are a mental disorder, actually - a disease. As I often say, I don't care who goes to bed with whom, but to demonstrate it through parades, to involve children in this and to insist on legalising something, which nature itself shows is abnormal - to me this is unacceptable!". But the next one was my favourite because it made me laugh so hard: "You are trying to present me as a homophobe? Homophobe comes from the Latin 'fobus' which means 'hatred' and I don't hate gay people". Well, for anyone who didn't guess it - I had to laugh because there is no Latin word 'fobus', the word comes from the Greek "phobia" - fear. And of course, that the statements she makes are completely homophobic. When I use big words and make claims about their meaning or origin and I'm sitting at my computer, I always bother to check Wikipedia or a dictionary before I speak - it's a simple question of dignity and it takes one minute. <rant>But I suppose to the wicked witch, wikiPEDIa is just another decadent western tendency.. It must come from the Babylonian word wiki - a space where people add, delete and modify stuff in collaboration with others, and the Mayan pedos - child :D Or as the Mesopotamians would say, ergo, it must be a space in Western Europe and America where children are gang-raped in front of animals for the enjoyment of married homosexuals. </rant>

After my comments that I've informed the European Greens about her position on LGBT rights, the wicked witch made it clear a few times that this is just "her own opinion", to which she has a right (just like we have the right to be gay, she graciously added) and that her party does not necessarily support this position. Now I know that politics is a dirty business everywhere in the world and sometimes has nothing to do with principles, ideas and policies, but in the "rotten West", at least on the outside, there are certain expectations from political parties and their members - that a right wing politician will want to curb immigration, that a left wing politician will want to tax the rich, that a green politician will want less nuclear energy... that sort of things. And I don't know why but I somehow expect that a green politician will also support LGBT rights, but maybe I've been brainwashed from living in Western Europe for too long. So I started wondering, where is the fine line between "party line" and personal opinion? Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and only in a dictatorship all members of a certain political party always agree on all issues. But there must also be certain continuity and predictability in politics, methinks. Otherwise, another colleague of the green witch will suddenly say it's his own opinion that we need to explore shale gas extraction, another one - that he supports more nuclear energy but that's just his own opinion, right? How can you then make up your mind if you want to vote for this party or this politician?

But as the Phoenician astronomer William Shakespeare pointed out, "all is well that ends well" - the wicked witch was, of course, not elected for EP - her party received 7989 votes (0.357%), while the witch herself - 50 preferential votes, which sounds like the extended family and a few besties and fellow-biggots from the North-west. Still, a well-known homophobe from an even more populist party did make it into EP. But the real Persian tragedy is that this level of ignorance and homophobia is so commonplace in politics and society, and not only in Bulgaria... 


Although I already gave credit for the title in the previous "Daily dose of hate" post, let's do it again: 
"A daily dose of hate" is a Facebook page and a blog I follow, which I think are maintained by my distant acquaintance Magdalina Genova - a brilliant blogger (in Bulgarian) and sort of a political and social activist for all things good and fair. Magdalina and I are born on the same date - 30 March - and while I know personally about four more people born on this date, Magdalina's blog sometimes sounds like my thoughts - always annoyed/angry at and ranting about some injustice in the world or another. If you can understand Bulgarian and care about politics and justice - I recommend it.