Insights and Analysis

Framing Human Trafficking to Address Commoditization of Human Beings

August 13, 2014

By Nandita Baruah

The U.S Government’s latest Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report makes some critical observations in relation to how 187 countries are addressing human trafficking, and how this relates to the larger issues of labor migration and its manifestation into forced labor. For Asia – the world’s most economically dynamic region with more than 30 million migrant workers – the findings come with enormous implications.

A passenger greets family after returning to Nepal through Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Migrant labor in the Middle East has been a growing area of employment for Nepalis. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

A passenger greets family after returning to Nepal through Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Migrant labor in the Middle East has been a growing area of employment for Nepalis. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

This year’s report brought bad news for both Thailand and Malaysia, which were downgraded from last year’s Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 3, defined as “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards.” Meanwhile, China moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List, and Afghanistan showed improvement, moving up from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2.

The report refers to Thailand’s role as a destination, transit, and source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. The TIP report found that there are an estimated two to three million migrant workers in Thailand. The majority of the trafficking victims within Thailand – numbering in the tens of thousands by conservative estimates – are migrants from Thailand’s neighboring countries, primarily Myanmar, who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or exploited in the sex trade. In South Asia, countries like India and Nepal managed to retain their Tier 2 status, but the report was critical of their failure to adequately address the problem of labor migration and the linkages to human trafficking. The report reflects on the increasing number of men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor in Nepal, India, the Middle East, and other labor receiving countries, and on the inter-face between sex trafficking and the adult entertainment industry. There is a strong reference to the link between labor migration and role of labor brokers and manpower agencies in abetting human trafficking. The TIP report and other recent research also point out the large percentage of unregistered migrants from countries like Nepal and Bangladesh who travel through India or rely on unregistered recruiting agents, which increases their vulnerability to human trafficking and forced labor.

The emerging focus on human trafficking within the context of human migration for labor is a critical shift in how anti-trafficking intervention approaches are being designed and implemented. Historically, trafficking in persons has been equated with prostitution. The definitions of trafficking and prostitution have been informed by opposing feminists’ perspectives and theoretical frameworks. There are two primary frameworks that have guided global discourse and action on addressing human trafficking in the context of sex work. The abolitionist approach takes the stance that no person can truly consent to prostitution, no woman would choose to prostitute herself by free will, and a woman who engages in prostitution is a victim who requires help to escape sexual slavery. The second is the sex workers’ rights approach, which views prostitution as a viable option and a choice that women make in order to survive that should be respected, not stigmatized. This approach claims that women have the “right to sexual determination,” the right to work in safe labor conditions, and the right to migrate for sex work wherever they choose. However, neither of the above approaches reflects on the larger and more current context of human trafficking from the perspective of the need for labor and safe livelihood.

The 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and Exploitation of Prostitution of Others was the first international instrument that offered a framework to address human trafficking and prostitution. But the Convention had limited acceptance. Many women’s rights organizations and feminists challenged the construct of the Convention and argued that it was based on a moralistic perspective and positioned trafficking as forced prostitution. Most agreed that it represented an abolitionist notion of prostitution, where prostitution was positioned as being “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person.”

The shift to a more “Rights-Based Framework” to addressing trafficking came about with the articulation of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, an international agreement under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) which entered into force on in December 2003. The Protocol made some important shifts in framing the problem, first that it makes a distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution. The inclusion of force or deception as being essential to the UN Protocol trafficking definition marked an important departure from the abolitionist perspective of the 1949 Convention. The UN Protocol definition also included trafficking for purposes other than prostitution. The focus shifted from morality and women’s sexuality to addressing working conditions and crime. The UN Protocol has been ratified by 159 state parties.

However, despite the improved rights-based framework, many nations continued to use a moral lens in their anti-trafficking efforts. Most countries have adopted a criminalization approach, whereby efforts aimed at prevention includes aspects of protection and prosecution and are usually addressed in conjunction with one another, rather than independent of one another. This approach has at times led to policies and programs that can undermine the rights of men and women in relation to mobility and livelihood. Programmatic interventions have been divided on ideological and political grounds, which have created a divide between how anti-trafficking programs are implemented in the global South vs. the global North. This has contributed to the paradigm of the oppressed sex worker from global south versus women with right of choice to sex work and agency in the global North. This also defined how nations in South and the North designed laws and policies to combat trafficking.

Human trafficking today is an extremely complex problem, and it goes beyond the realm of sex trafficking. In a globalized world, labor has entered the commodity market and the movement of labor across nations and continents is driven by the economics of demand and supply with “profit” being the key determinant in defining the rights of the laborer. Nations and regions with differing economic conditions and agendas, and governance systems that are not always evolved around principals of equity, create a major challenge in protecting the rights of migrant labor. In such conditions human trafficking gets subsumed in the process of labor migration and has to be addressed accordingly by focusing on providing protective legal and social environment to men and women from all forms of unsafe and exploitative labor conditions.

Anti-trafficking programs and interventions need to be cognizant of and responsive to this emerging context of human trafficking within the migration process. A rights-based perspective should take into account any form of exploitation in all types of work, and address oppressive working conditions from a social and economic lens. Trafficking has to be seen as part of the reality of migration patterns, mainly undocumented flows. We must also address the economic, legal, and social constructs that enable the commoditization of human beings to be traded and exploited within and across borders.

Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s chief of party for the Combating Trafficking in Persons Program in Nepal. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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