Precarity in the Labour Force: Discourse as Distraction-2019

For many in the West the idea that some people in the world are suffering through different forms of exploitation (more often than not for the benefit of the West) is unimaginable, especially considering modern technologies that have been developed to benefit human civilisation. It is impossible to deny that exploitation across the globe is both racialised and gendered, and the rise of globalisation has changed the understanding of how and where our products and services are being produced and provided. The dominance of ‘convenience’ in a modern society has changed the global political and financial economies, as well as having a detrimental impact on our environment. In contemporary times, the ways in which we understand ‘exploitation’ has been shaped by particular institutions and have come to reflect economic and political agendas of a specific group of elites who hold political, economic and social capital. Arguably sex trafficking has dominated global discourse surrounding human trafficking as a whole. The significance of this weighted rhetoric is calculated in order to further the political agenda of those in power. Exploitation and precarity go hand in hand with the migrant worker and this essay will attempt to highlight the ignorance of the intersection between women’s exploitation within the wider labour force and human trafficking. The essay will begin by looking at the early 20th century history of trafficking discourses which came about at a time when women’s participation in the labour force was increasing. Following on will be a discussion around the separation of different forms of labour and impact that patriarchy has had on understanding gender roles within modern societies. The final part of the essay will be a case study on the recent anti-trafficking bill in the US and the implication on migrants and other marginalised people.

While many scholars taking an historical approach to understanding trans/international trafficking of humans and take a positivist perspective in regards to the human rights protection the debate affords, others have been more critical in regards to the driving factor for these discourses (Laite, 2017, pg.40). One such critic argues that “the historical anti-trafficking movement was about crime control rather than relief or rights” (Knepper cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 40). To better understand this point, an investigation of the events that birthed this discussion within modern times is essential. At the turn of the 20th century a new debate surrounding the exploitation of white women and children in the context of mistreatment and prostitution began in Europe. This has had a considerable impact on the way in which we understand sex trafficking around the globe. It was during this time that key studies surrounding the exploitation of women within licit work were undertaken. This prompted The League of Nations to create a committee known as the ‘Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children’ in 1921 (Laite, 2017, pg. 46). In 1927 the committee commissioned research to be undertaken to investigate both the extent and the character in which women were being exploited within the entertainment industry. Labour migration within the entertainment industry was extremely common, especially in women aged 15-25 years. It was understood that this particular group of women were especially at risk of being coerced or duped into the sex industry. The vulnerability of these women was framed to highlight the exploitative nature of sexual labour while ignoring the exploitation that was inherent in other industries, including the entertainment industry. The need for legislation was justified in the intent to ‘protect’ these susceptible women from the immorality of the sex industry. This reflected the perspective held by the majority of the committee, who believed that all forms of sex work are inherently immoral and degrading (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). The 1927 report found a direct link between the exploitative nature of ‘women’s work’, in that the wages were not enough to be considered a ‘living wage’. It was this economic factor that pushed many women into prostitution. What is important to note here is that although the report stated that the economic factor was to be considered, the focus was on morality rather than financial; “Though members of the Traffic Committee bemoaned the influence of women’s low wages and subsequent poverty, they emphasized the moral over the monetary” (Boris cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 48). Focusing on morals rather than the financial was a calculated move by the Advisory Committee; by ignoring that sexual labour may be considered work like other forms of labour, it ignores the fact that regulation may be beneficial for those participating in the industry. By imposing specific ‘morals’ on women in the industry disregards their agency and autonomy as citizens within society, and has helped to fuel a designed discourse that has perpetuated into contemporary discussions on the same issue.

As already mentioned, one of the key issues in this discussion is the separation of sexual labour from other forms of labour, which has resulted in forced sexual labour coming to be understood as “the nexus of all so-called social evils” (Shah, 2008, pg. 20). Towards the end of the 19th Century the development of a “free” global labour market in conjuncture with the move to abolish slavery gave way to a new (gendered) understanding of unfree and free labour, an understanding that continues to persist to this day (Laite, 2017, pg. 44). This is made obvious in the statistics surrounding time spent providing domestic and care work within family institutions and the gender disparity that exists today; 86% of women in Australia believed they did the majority of the housework, while 73% of men stated that they were the primary breadwinners (Acharya, 2018). This highlights the understanding that women are natural care givers and this type of labour should remain in the domain of unpaid labour. Understanding the gendered dimensions of labour is vital to this discussion. The way in which sex is viewed within our contemporary society is still based on religious and patriarchal ideologies, which stem from a misogynistic worldview that women are ‘less’ than men. In the words of the French feminist Simone de Beuvoir “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (2011, pg. 6). The patriarchal dominance of Western society is important as it dictates what is allowed to be commodified in an open market. When it comes to female sexuality and the female body, commodification only appears to be acceptable when the objectification is coming from the outside. Morality is questioned when women provide sexual services (consensually or not) yet society has no problem in objectifying women in the name of marketing, using the female body to sell anything from beers to vegetarianism. The sexual autonomy of women has long been seen as immoral, and many people who hold abolitionist views on the issue (of consensual sex work) disregard the inherent exploitation that capitalism thrives off. The way in which this issue is represented in the media is also calculated and as Andrijasevic and Mai argue;
Stereotypical trafficking representations conveniently distract the global public from their increasing and shared day-to-day exploitability as workers because of the systematic erosion of labour rights globally. In doing so, they become complicit in the perpetuation of the very social inequalities, hierarchies and conflicts that allow exploitation and trafficking to occur” (2016, pg. 9)
The issue of sex trafficking is a gendered issue that transcends national borders. It is impossible to discuss gendered understandings of labour, especially in the context of paid/unpaid labour, without discussing the dominance of patriarchy throughout history. The assumption that patriarchy is naturally inherent for humans is wildly misguided; the end of the nomadic period for humans dramatically changed the gender dynamics of communities and the physically stronger men were in charge of defending and providing for the physically weaker females (Ananthaswamy & Douglas, 2018). Marx also understood the importance of this societal shift and discussed it in relation to the rise of the labour market: “great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians” (cited in Cohen, 2006, pg. 13). The way in which Marx uses the word ‘free’ is specific in its use, and refers to the freedom that proletariats have from ownership of land or resources that allows them to sell their labour power as a commodity. The subordination of women taken as something natural helps to enforce particular ideas around what can be commodified within a patriarchal capitalist society. The role of the media in perpetuating certain rhetoric’s within the public discourse is significant, not just through news media but also through film portrayals including biased representations within the documentary field (have a think about how many films, both fiction and non-fiction, that have been made about sex work without any consultation with ACTUAL sex workers). A number of scholars have highlighted this media influence, stating that it is not just news media that help frame the situation in a particular light but general understanding are a product of both history and contemporary media.

Prostitution is commonly referred to as ‘The Oldest Profession’ and the exchange of sexual services for economic or other material gain has been around since the Greek Dark Ages approx 1100 BC (Bassermann, 1993, pg. 1). Prostitution has been framed in a number of different ways over the course of history, depending on the political climate of the time. In modern times, the conflation between sex work and trafficking has been extremely damaging to those (mostly women) who are engaging in consensual sex work. Those who are even more susceptible to this damaging rhetoric are minority sex workers, including migrants, people of colour and transgender workers. While consensual prostitution or sex work may be defined as “the exchange of sex for money, drugs or influence between two consenting adults” (Galucci, 2019), trafficking on the other hand involves third party control. The key difference between the two is agency, something that is more than often overlooked within the political discourse. The remainder of this essay will focus on the current US context since the implementation of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) bills in April 2018.
The image conjured in the public mind when we hear about a victim of trafficking is often of a “young, innocent, foreign woman tricked into prostitution abroad” (Andrijasevic& Mai, 2016, pg. 4), which is why the events leading up to the enforcement of the FOSTA bill was even more shocking to the US audience. Classifieds website ‘Backpage’, which predominately hosted adult services content, was involved in a high-profile court case in which it was found to be not-guilty of hosting illegal content, even though the court found that Backpage were aware of the illegal content on their site. The content in question was advertisements of underage girls being trafficked through the site. The most shocking thing to both the local and international audiences was the fact that the majority of the girls being trafficked through the site were American citizens, challenging the above notion of who the victims are. The not-guilty ruling was thanks to Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act which stated that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (Reynolds, 2019). In basic terms; prior to FOSTA/SESTA websites were not held liable for what third parties posted to their websites, these bills changed the onus and the effects are being felt by many not just in the US, and even those outside the realm of ‘sex work’. This ruling prompted the FOSTA/SESTA bill and it was signed into law by the Trump administration on the 11th of April 2018 (Romano, 2018). These bills amended the Communications Act so that responsibility was in the hands of the website should the content be involved in “the promotion or facilitation of prostitution” or “facilitating traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims” (cited in Peterson, Robinson & Shih, 2019). It is clear by the language used in the policy that sex trafficking and prostitution are conflated and doesn’t allow any protections for consensual sex workers. Given the public understanding of ‘trafficking’ the bills received a lot of public support including support from both sides of the political spectrum and even some high-profile celebrities (Romano, 2018). However, although these bills appear to have good intentions the actual impacts are far more detrimental than expected, hardly surprising once you consider that sex workers were not consulted throughout the policy development process. To avoid potential liabilities a number of websites that were used by consensual sex workers have been removed from the internet putting the lives of sex workers (who are already marginalised within society) at even greater risk. The way in which sex work has operated since the birth of the internet dramatically changed improving the safety of many workers (giving them access to networks and lists of ‘bad johns’ etc.) with FOSTA reversing a lot of these advanced safety measures and pushing sex work into the shadows. Within the first month following the enactment of the bill thirteen sex workers were reported missing with two more confirmed deaths by suicide, highlighting the danger imposed on consensual sex workers by pushing them into an invisible economy (Chamberlain, 2019, pg. 2174). Many anti-trafficking advocates and social commentators have argued that these anti-trafficking bills will have ‘unintended consequences’ and the threat to internet freedom is wildly ‘unconstitutional’ (Patel, 2018).
Evidence suggests that migrants and other marginalised people such as queer identifying, transgender people, disabled and people of colour have been more affected by these bills and some have suggested that this is intentional as the US has a history of “profiting off the mass incarceration of already vulnerable people” (Patel, 2018). The status of workers has a direct impact on the resources they have access to, and often face extra hurdles in landing a stable job such as language barriers, cultural differences and blatant racism. For many undocumented migrants in the US the employment opportunities available to them are very limited, leading many of them to unregulated jobs, including within the sex industry, making them more susceptible to trafficking (Murphy-Oates, 2018). Although there are many industries where trafficking of people occurs, it is only the sex industry that seems to garner the most attention. This speaks to the gendered and racialised understanding of trafficking victims and as Alice Miller suggests “we need to avoid the perpetual retelling of the story of the sexually abused victim who needs only rescue rather than a demanding woman who needs rights and social justice as a citizen” (cited in Crosby, 2007, pg. 46).

What this essay has attempted to highlight is that work under a capitalist system is inherently exploitative and political discourses are crucial to understanding different flows of not only people but also information, both within and across national borders. Criminalising a particularly gendered form of labour, in this instance sexual labour, has done more to “serve more the interests of states in controlling their borders than protecting women in situations of vulnerability” (Crosby, 2007, pg. 46). While many immigration controls do foster precarious working conditions for migrants this essay emphasizes that within patriarchal society, precarity is prevalent for all those who are seen as ‘the other’ including women, migrants, people of colour, disabled, non-cis and non-heterosexual people.

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