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!:-) 


  1. Nice job Bobby, like always! Just a clarification though, not because you wrote it wrong, but simple to shed some light on it:

    My girlfriend (Felicia Anna) didn't do this job yet in Romania, she worked different jobs before in her home country, but she wasn't making much money with it. She wanted to move to another country like Italy where many of her friends lived and worked, but none of her friends gave her any help with it.
    It wasn't until she met someone else and they started talking about prostitution, that she started to think about doing it. Still it took about a year before she finally said yes, after still hearing nothing from her friends in Italy.

    But what you say is absolutely true. Although I don't know many women who did prostitution before in their own country, it is true that there are women out there who did the same job in their home country, and moved to Holland because the work here is safer and legal.
    But most of the women I know, they didn't do this job before in their home country, because they considered it to be 'too dangerous', which is exactly what your post is about.

    But great job Bobby!

  2. Hey Mark, yes, thanks for the clarification. That's why I said I don't know if this was Anna's story but I know at Animus we had clients with the story that I told. They were just deceived about the conditions under which they would work, which happens also to people (from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, etc.) who come here to pick mushrooms or work in construction.. Generally - workers who are less protected.

  3. in other "legally certified" professions, the government provides (under certain conditions) small start-up subsidies and / or allows for start-up tax advantages, to help starters and boost economy. Beginning a-n-y business will require some investments and help of others. Expenses precede profit... and paying back debts always takes work. Any sex worker, beginning or not, in the Netherlands should be entitled to these entrepreneurial advantages because the business is legal but only in sex work the beginning entrepreneurs are labeled "victims." Morality politics, once again.

  4. Yeah, the case you describe here are what my girlfriend calls exploited girls in this post here: "
    Basically these people have the same position as an unemployment agency, of which some are shady, and some are not and just helpful. I also think one of the answers to fighting trafficking would be an uneployment agency focussed on prostitution. They don't even have to actively recruit prostitutes, but they could replace the services human traffickers offers now, so the girls don't become a victim in the first place.
    It's like legalizing coffeeshops, if you make that legal, at least you make sure the people who buy drugs get the right stuff that's safe with the right information. Controling the front door as it where. If you can control the front door, you don't have to keep fighting the backdoor that much.