Understanding Exploitation

By Gallagher, Anne | Harvard International Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding Exploitation


Gallagher, Anne, Harvard International Review


Siddartha Kara writes a splendidly persuasive piece of activist-journalism, using his deeply personal experiences trawling the brothels and factories of distant lands to extrapolate global truths about contemporary forms of slavery. Kara's outrage may well be inspirational to the uninitiated, and it would be ungenerous to ignore his role in focusing public consciousness on the perennial problem of human exploitation. Unfortunately, unverifiable data, broad generalizations, and deep definitional confusions compromise the value of his work for those of us who are living a little closer to the legal and political front lines. The story of human exploitation is a complicated and contested one. We should not be afraid of acknowledging that reality. Nor should we be afraid of weakening our cause by admitting the huge gaps in understanding and knowledge that seriously undermine the credibility of historical analogies and call into question sweeping claims about victim numbers and profit levels.

The true importance of Kara's work lies in what it tells us about how our understanding of and tolerance for human exploitation have changed so dramatically and profoundly in recent times. When the international community came together in 2000 to draft a treaty on trafficking, attention was squarely on the "movement" aspect of the very narrow issue of cross border sexual exploitation of women and girls. However, "trafficking" quickly and unexpectedly became an umbrella term for a wide range of forced and exploitative labor practices that had traditionally only been dealt with at the edges of international law and policy'. Not every country is happy. I have no doubt that initial enthusiasm for a global agreement on trafficking would have been much less if states had fully understood that its tentacles would eventually reach directly into their factories, farms, fishing boats, and private households.

Thirteen years and hands-on experience in more than forty countries have made me wary of facile explanations, quick fixes, and simplistic solutions. A demand-supply analysis such as that proposed by Kara is interesting but very limited. Human trafficking networks and flows are still poorly understood and the extent to which they mirror traditional economic exchanges is not yet clear. In addition, exploited human beings are not inanimate commodities: the element of personal agency that is present in all but the very worst eases of human exploitation complicates conventional economic analyses. …

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