Emblematic of the shallow level of dialogue taking place concerning human trafficking is the “celebritization” of the global crisis, panelists said on Feb. 2 during an international conference organized by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Here is a telling excerpt from a United States congressional session on “Enhancing the Global Fight to End Human Trafficking”:
Congressman: “While my wife of 56 years considers you devastatingly handsome, I think your true beauty lies inside.”
Ricky Martin: “Thank you very much.”
The pop singer, who spoke before Congress as an expert on the subject, was asked to offer steps toward a solution.
Martin: “We must enforce the laws against human trafficking by providing children and their families with the opportunity to live safely and peacefully. We must educate children and families about the dangers of trafficking. We must provide resources and services to reintegrate and rehabilitate victims of these practices. We must prosecute and punish the traffickers.”
Martin had just recited from the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that members of Congress themselves had written — known as the three Ps: provide resources, prosecute and punish.
“The celebrity interest in the issue is emblematic of a number of things: The top-down approach to trafficking, the shallow interest, and particularly the pithy elevator pitch approach that the public and policy and lawmakers encourage and endorse with regard to human trafficking solutions,” said panelist Dina Haynes, professor at New England Law in Boston, who shared some celebrity congressional testimonials she had researched.
“These pithy elevator pitches feed and are responsive to the voyeuristic interest from the public and Congress members as well,” Haynes added.
The all-day conference, held at the Davidson Continuing Education Center, drew more than 200 students, scholars, social workers and legal advocates from as far as Australia and the Netherlands. It marked the beginning of the new leadership role the university and USC Dornsife are taking to provide alternative frameworks and solutions to human trafficking — which is considerably larger than prostitution, and includes domestic, garment, agricultural and other oppressed workers.
Marjan Wijers, a Netherlands-based independent researcher, consultant and trainer in human rights, human trafficking, sex workers and women’s rights, gave the keynote address. She said that the 19th-century concept of trafficking, which was created to address abuses of migrant women in the sex industry, unwittingly adopted a highly morally biased notion.
In essence, Wijers said, it divided women into two groups: innocent victims in need of rescue and guilty ones who could be abused with immunity. It also created racist and nationalistic overtones. She said the antiquated concept impeded any serious effort to address the true human rights abuses taking place.
Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, led by Manuel Pastor, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science and gender studies, the conference was also funded by USC Dornsife 2020, the Department of Sociology and the Center for International Studies.
“The conference was a resounding success,” said Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, professor and chair of sociology and professor of gender studies, who organized the conference with Alice Echols, professor of English, history, and professor and chair of gender studies. The conference was also sponsored by USC Dornsife’s Center for Feminist Research, which Echols directs.
“Participants repeatedly raised the problem of the lack of reliable data on human trafficking,” Parreñas said. “Panelists also discussed the existence of competing definitions of trafficking among the largest stakeholders — and in the process admitting the challenges of developing solutions.”
During a discussion moderated by Echols, panelists broached the historical debate over the relationship between trafficking or nontrafficking and forced labor. The International Labour Organization has only recently broadened its definition of trafficking to concede that not all forced labor is a result of trafficking. For example, debt bondage occurs when a worker agrees to provide labor in exchange for a loan, but the relationship develops into bondage as the employer adds more and more debt to the exchange.
“So there’s hope in deepening our understanding of the nature of coercion,” said panelist Janie Chuang, associate professor of law at American University. “Part of the problem is the product of ‘celebritization,’ but also the product of the desire to frame trafficking as a slavery issue.
“I take issue with using the term slavery as it applies to trafficking. I get that it galvanizes indignation and gets people to care. Everybody wants to be a modern day abolitionist, but there are consequences in talking about it in terms of slavery in that it raises public perception of the structure of trafficking,” Chuang continued. “People still think trafficking has to involve some sort of violence.”
Most human trafficking cases do not involve violence, Chuang said, adding that forced labor is often a result of psychological coercion.
“We’re in agreement on that,” said Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. “Psychological violence is violence. It’s the worst kind of violence. It’s to be terrorized into doing something you don’t want to do.”
Connecting the fight on human trafficking with broader movements to empower migrant laborers, the conference addressed how the war on trafficking could become a vehicle for promoting the human and worker rights of migrants. Participants also discussed how to reduce workers’ vulnerability to abuse and how to empower them in the process of labor migration.
Extending far beyond sex work, panelists discussed a wide range of workers, including agricultural, domestic and garment workers. The conference brought attention to migrants who are susceptible to trafficking not because of the nature of their occupations but because of their limited rights as migrants and workers. They include migrant contract workers who labor under conditions of indenture, guest workers denied full citizenship rights and undocumented workers who face the threat of criminal action.
“We used to focus almost exclusively on sex trafficking of women, but in recent years we’ve applied a much more robust gender lens to the issue,” said panelist Kate Francis, associate director of the Women’s Empowerment Program at The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. “We’re now doing a much more complex conceptualization of trafficking that aims to create a safer and supportive environment for migrants.”
One panel discussion concentrated on a migrant justice frame for building a broad consensus and action against human trafficking. Another focused on migrant children coerced into labor and prostitution. Still another centered on sex workers and the impact of campaigns.
“As participants noted, holding a conference focused on the question of ‘rescue’ is the obvious next step,” Parreñas said of her group’s efforts. “Currently, rescue is the dominant solution to trafficking, one advocated by evangelical Christians, abolitionists and Hollywood celebrities. A conference on rescue featuring its defenders and critics is one that needs to happen.”
The effort also includes catapulting USC into a more prominent and central role in the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking, which is sponsored by Harvard Law School and American University’s Washington College of Law. This group includes leading legal scholars and ethnographers who are promoting a more nuanced understanding of trafficking. The conference at USC was the third public forum hosted by one of its members, and by far the largest.
“We’re just now starting to roll up our sleeves,” Echols said.
Organizers are working on editing the conference proceedings, which will be published by Open Society and made available on its website by next spring. Additionally, Open Society will print 3,000 copies and distribute them to high schools throughout the United States.
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