Sunday, 26 October 2014

The demand side of human trafficking

"Demand" is a major concept in anti-trafficking work. All international anti-trafficking legislation urges states to "take measure to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation". Anti-trafficking organisations often state that "like any economic activity, human trafficking is based on a supply and demand model". Taken more broadly, this suggests that in our consumer society, where we try to have more of everything, we demand cheap goods and services, which in turn puts pressure on producers and companies to lower the production costs, which in turn can be best achieved through exploitative/unfair labour. More narrowly, but more vocally, the concept of "demand" is used to denote men's demand for paid sex, which in turn suggests that more sex workers are necessary, which can be achieved through more women trafficked for sexual exploitation. The #EndDemand hashtag is usually used to call for the prohibition of prostitution or the criminalisation of the clients of sex workers as a way to end the demand for prostitution and by extension of this narrow view - trafficking. 

I am uncomfortable with the issue of "demand" and unconvinced in it but I also don't feel knowledgeable enough to try and disprove it. The Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW) has published a very good research "Moving Beyond 'Supply and Demand' Catchphrases", which shows the limitations of this oversimplification of an otherwise complex issue. But I still want to share briefly some issues I have with it, before moving to my main point. Firstly, I don't quite agree with the notion of consumer demand for cheap goods and services, which leads to exploitation of workers. "Cheap" is a very subjective notion - what is cheap for me is expensive to someone else and the other way around. Surely millions of people in the world demand cheap apartments, jets and boats or cheap Fendi and Gucci bags and Vera Wang wedding dresses but I haven't seen a large supply of them. And conversely, are we sure that Fendi and Gucci are more fair employers than H&M or could it be that they are just as unfair but simply pay higher fees to designers, more for advertising and their CEO's live more lavishly? Secondly, as for commercial sex, again I don't agree that there is demand for trafficked women in prostitution. There's probably a general demand for cheap, easy, accessible and uncomplicated sex but there are plenty of people who are willing to offer it, whether for money or not. It's not even certain that a trafficked prostitute is cheaper than the free ones - at least in the Amsterdam Red Light District there is a minimum price that all sex workers ask. Thirdly, I don't agree that the demand always shapes the supply. I can't imagine that there was a huge demand for, let's say, cherry-flavoured Coca Cola, where thousands of people begged the company to put cherry flavour in its drink. I rather imagine that someone at Coca Cola had this idea, tested it on the public, saw that some people liked it, and the company started selling it (the actual history is a bit different but still doesn't suggest that there was a demand preceding the supply). Similarly, I'm not sure there was a clear demand for flavoured vodka, camera inside a mobile phone or even smart phones, an app that counts your steps, nylon stockings (note the sentence "The introduction of nylon... began a high demand for stockings..."), etc. These may be silly examples, but my point is that maybe because there are women willing to sell sex - there are men willing to buy it; because there are cheap goods and services - there are people who buy/use them. Lastly, to call vulnerable people, migrants and victims of trafficking "supply" is just humiliating and dehumanising. 

To me there are two demands that lie at the core of human trafficking - the demand of people for better life and the demand of the exploiters for quick and easy profits. Everyone agrees that the root causes of human trafficking lie in the poverty, unemployment, inequality and injustice in countries of origin. In their demand for better life, people become vulnerable to exploitation, whether by migrating to another country, or by undertaking precarious work. On the other hand is the "demand" of exploiters for higher profits/lower labour costs. Obviously there are employers in agriculture, construction or domestic work who provide decent wages and working conditions and others who don't. But to us, the end consumers, the price of prawns or mushrooms or apartments is the same, whether produced through fair or unfair labour, which means that the exploitative employers simply cash in on higher profits. This means that to #EndDemand we need to end the structural deficiencies of global economy and to address the unequal distribution of wealth, gender-based violence, discrimination, corruption and injustice and to ensure decent working and living conditions for all people. Instead, governments of the Global North prefer easy, simple and populistic measures to #EndDemand, such as the criminalisation of sex work, which will only leave even more people in poverty.

Fortunately, there seems to be an increasing understanding of the need to address the root causes of human trafficking and the demand for equality, justice and decent life. On World Day of Social Justice, the ILO and OSCE published a joint statement "Fighting human trafficking means fighting poverty, unemployment and inequality", which is also reflected in the 2013 annual report of the OSCE Special Representative for human trafficking Maria Grazia Giammarinaro. I am hopeful that Ms. Giammarinaro will continue this line of thinking in her new position of a UN Special Rapporteur on human trafficking. Dr. Helga Konrad, former OSCE Special Representative, also states in an interview that "combating human trafficking requires addressing social inequality". 

Sadly, at the same time, the EU adopts a resolution to criminalise the purchase of sex as a way to address human trafficking and gender inequality, negotiates the TTIP and ISDS behind closed doors and is fortifying Fortress Europe... 

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