The smuggling of people across borders commonly captures a sense of curiosity or adventure. Mass media often presents us with impressions of old container trucks or cargo trains crossing borders locked with a sweating crowd grasping for breath. Other times, it is about mothers carrying young children jumping into the sea from trespassing ferries and drowning in their last desperate effort of swimming to reach Australia or the United States. These provocative and dramatic actions make stereotypical headlines. To some extent, the curiousity that the passionate imagery evokes in us reminds us of the slavery of the past. However, our minds barely manage, if at all, to register the current patterns of enforced and exploited labour. Precisely because today we know the people in vessels, carts, brothels and factories as being "illegal" rather than being wage-slave labour.
The inadequate headlines mask the true face of some these risky activities: the agents, gangs, and the economic structure and global market of labour trafficking behind it. Underneath the spectacular and criminalizing desperation invoked by popular culture and the press are the untold stories of trafficked bodies. From domestic workers to sex workers, from construction labour to sweatshop crew, modern slavery is harshly entrenched in today's economic, social and legal systems.
The modern commercial trade of workers, women, and child labour is a controversial phenomenon involving an unjust social structure. Occurring across almost all geopolitical borders and not just national borders, this exploitative exchange of people doesn't merely float in space or happen coincidently and individually. Rather, human trafficking exists as a stratified market to maximize the supply of cheap and reserve labour and is interwoven with the exploitation of labour, women and migrant workers.
Flight to cities with jobs or giving into work deemed "illegal" is not always a distinct voluntary act; it evolves in relation to processes of environmental degradation, war and conflict, economic violence, societal oppression of women and the marginalization of poor people.
Ins and Outs of War
War and conflict creates a tragic recipe for trafficked and abused workers. It forges a two-way channel of dealing--both the ins and outs of forced labour. The horrors of war encircle the vast webs of human trafficking stretched across territories, cities and markets.
Recent documented instances include trafficked construction workers from Asia to Iraq. For instance, the United States subcontracted First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting for the construction of the u.s. embassy in Baghdad. Dealers, brokers and gangs recruit male construction workers from across Asia, routinely stopping in the Philippines, Pakistan, and India. While the workers are in transit in the Middle-east, the Kuwait-based company is in fact importing the labourers to Iraq. These workers, holding boarding passes to Dubai, are unaware that their plane--a private jet appointed by the company--is actually heading to war-torn Baghdad where they are going to be building one of America's biggest embassies.
John Owen, a u.s. citizen initially working for First Kuwati resigned from his job several months after overseeing the construction project because of the manipulative scheme and the harsh conditions workers face. In his reported testimonies, employees of First Kuwati would beat and abuse the trafficked labourers and often deny them proper safety mechanisms and basic needs.
While many workers are deceitfully imported, others find themselves trapped after military violence breaks outs. The war in Lebanon last summer is no exception to these forms of exploitation of migrant workers. Herbert Dolcena, a filmmaker and advocate affiliated with Focus on The Global South provides a glimpse of this modern slavery in his short documentary--Suicide Jumpers: A Modern Day Slavery in a Modern-Day War. When the conflict erupted in Israel and Lebanon last year, Filipino domestic workers suddenly found themselves enslaved by their employers, unable to leave active war-zones and instead jumping to their death to escape the tormenting and traumatic pain.
Meanwhile, ethnic minorities who search for refuge from violence and military oppression often become vulnerable to trafficking schemes. Refugees, women and children, fleeing a brutal regime in Burma, seek almost any means of escape, and subsequently find themselves recruited into Thai brothels and sweatshops.
War is not the only industry of trafficked labourers. Militarization, male violence, economic and environmental rape, capital urbanization, corporate power and the state can all serve the purpose of instituting and supporting the commercial trade of people.
Routes and Roots on the Indonesian Channels
Southeast Asia is a geographic hotspot of trafficking when it comes to processes of economic violence and is known as a Mecca of a thriving sex industry. The capital boom in Asia for transnational corporations combined with aggressive privatization as experienced around the corners of the world has further marginalized the poor and eroded many of traditional subsistence agricultural and aquaculture livelihoods. Young people from the hinterlands in Indonesia are in high demand in regional urbanizing cities to fill the growing appeal of wage-slave labour.
Harisan Aritonang is a fisherman from North Sumatra in Indonesia. His brother went to Malaysia, working there for three years on a rusty turf. When Harisan learned about his brother's case of human trafficking, he studied law and joined Serikat Buruh Migrant Indonesia (SMBI)--a grassroots organization fighting in the migrant labour movement.
"Between 1999 and 2004, I found 11,000 cases of trafficked labour from North Sumatra to Malaysia." Harisan explains. "I find that the government and the state doesn't advocate for the people and migrant workers."
Official information or outreach from the government regarding immigrant work abroad is often lacking. Young people, desperate for jobs and making a living, end up with illegal recruitment agencies that deceive them by promising legitimate and worthwhile work and then transporting them to Malaysia or Brunei with either forged documents or through back channels.
Harison knows these routes well: "There are trafficking ports in North Sumatra such as like Tanang Pilang, where they operate illegal ferries or small boats to Malaysia, or Brunei. When the migrant workers arrive in Malaysia, they are picked up and taken to work in restaurants, construction work, the sex industry, factories and plantations as wage-slave labour. Sometimes, when employers no longer need them, employers re-sell young women to another employer or into sex work."
Harison says that his wife was recently approached by a broker who offered to make her a new passport and tried to lure her into this com-modified trade.
"Criminal" Survivor? Lies, Deceits and Manipulation
The legal system mainly focuses on the illegal transportation of people or hiring of undocumented workers. Such a legislative response is altogether weak since the crucial issue is the widespread exploitation of labour and gender oppression.
Human trafficking is not simply the illegal smuggling of people across borders. It also involves the violent or manipulative tactics involved in recruitment and exercising the modern slavery. Workers are subjected to various involuntary conditions such as sweatshop work or sexual exploitation. Mainstream representation overlooks the coercive nature of their jobs often in vulnerable and fearful situations of being undocumented or indebted to their recruiting dealers.
Murbaya, a 17-year old woman, has been deported from Malaysia back to Jakarta. She is staying at the shelter run by SMBI before she can go back to her own village in Bima, Indonesia and shares the ordeal of her journey. "My family are farmers, I wanted to work, I wanted to help support my family, but I can't find job here. My friends told me I can find job in Malaysia."
Desperate for a job, she was recruited by an agency, but upon arriving in Malaysia through legal means, she found herself working for an employer at a restaurant without a legitimate permit and in harsh and deprived conditions.
Migrant and job seekers frequently find themselves in trafficked situations after they legally entered. Yet society and law brand them as aliens "illegally" taking jobs in foreign cities, criminalizing them in the process. More frequent than not, survivors of human trafficking, coerced labour and deception may find themselves imprisoned, detained or deported for violating law or their legal terms of stay.
In Murbaya's case, when she escaped, in seeking help from her own government, the Indonesian consulate "deported" her back to Indonesia by ferry after two weeks without addressing the exploitation of her labour.
"I worked 20 hours every day. My salary is 430,000 Rupees (CND$75) (per month) and my employer would deduct agency fee from it."
Debt bondages are dirty tactics of this trading and slave practice in which trafficking agents make loads of money. Many workers are tied down to their low working salaries for months in order to cover the exorbitant fees of agents. Often times, agents or employers keep people's passports or documents preventing them from escaping, seeking help, or taking up better work. The deductions from their salaries are far higher than originally agreed upon, so they can be working months before they get anything.
Illegal Work and Trafficked Labourers
Migrant domestic workers usually experience abuse and exploitation. Licensed domestic workers regularly find themselves in situations of deceit, fraud, underpayment and exploitation of their labour rights by their agents and employers after they arrive, often through legitimate means and permits, in their country of destination.
A woman from Java sits in the corner of a migrant workers shelter in Hong Kong run by an Indonesian Islamic group. She's wearing a dark-coloured Muslim head scarf and its shadow over the forehead hides the tears in her eyes. Narrating her story, she remembers the details vividly. "I arrived here in Hong Kong on 18th November, 2005," Iin Indah Handayani tells.
Twenty-two years old, she faced the anguish of sexual assault, deception, and fear and was denied her full salary.
"After I arrived in employer's house they took me to the market. I thought my job was domestic job but contrary my job is to sell pork in the market. Every day I worked in the market during nine months, without rest days and I had been underpaid."
Today, she fights her case of underpayment at the labour tribunal, but the trafficking aspect remains rather unacknowledged.
From Trafficked Survivors to Workers' Movements
Legal problems involving discrimination against migrant workers can intensify and support the manipulative system because it often alienates coerced labourers without legal authorizations and criminalize prostitutes. The legal system needs to identify and understand how sexual and labour exploitation of migrants are interwoven in human trafficking.
Yet, even when human trafficking is recognized and acknowledged, it doesn't immediately do justice.
Reiako Harima, who works as the Mekong Migration Program Coordinator for the Asian Migrant Centre describes this grey area of human trafficking in her advocacy work with migrant workers.
"Sometimes exploited workers don't want to be called victims of trafficking. What they want is protection of labour rights," she says.
Trafficked labourers and exploited workers often find themselves to be either criminalized as being illegal or victimized as a powerless soul in need of rescuing. Without empowerment and a larger movement, many survivors of human trafficking and wage-slave labour remain at the mercy of the privileged or the police. As Harima puts it: "I hear from others that whether you are rescued as a victim of human trafficking or arrested as an illegal migrant worker, you generally still go through a similar experience."
According to Harima, in both cases, you are taken in somewhere by any organization or institution, and then transported somewhere else.
The sphere of human trafficking expands to and intersects with what we commonly see as abused migrant and sweatshop workers subjected to brutal treatment and deprivation of basic needs. As such, uprooting the nasty practice of human trafficking cannot occur without connecting the dots to its wider forces--the criminalization of prostitutes, exploitation of labour, underpayment of migrant workers and branding undocumented workers as "illegal" and alien.
The institutions and networks of human trafficking benefit the rich, the wealthy businessmen, the landlords, the cities of capital, the patriarchal soldiers and statesmen, the ruthless recruiters and the corporations. To fight it means empowerment of labourers, construction workers, domestic workers and sex workers, not only against the employers or recruitment gangs, but also against the laws that define the legal boundaries of our survival and the socio-economic and geo-political institutions that perpetuate poverty and force us to migrate for our livelihoods.
Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade--and How We Can Fight It by David Batsone, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007)
"Slavery returns to Britain on large scale" by Martin Wainwright, in The Guardian, February 26, 2007
"A us Fortress Rises in Bahgdad: Asian Workers Trafficked to Build world's Largest Embassy" by David Phinney, in CorpWatch, October 17, 2006…