Trading women for profit
The commodification of everything and everyone
The act of buying and selling sits at the very heart of the global economy, a commercially motivated system that P. Sainath rightly describes as “market fundamentalism” in which competition and conservative uniformity are central elements. Creative, independent thinking and originality are anathema to this relentless, homogenous machine, which breeds conformity, crushes individuality and “Borg-like”, assimilates all into “the collective”.
The aim of all traders is to buy cheap and sell for the highest price possible; keep costs low, including workers’ wages, and maximize profits for stockholders, directors and senior management. This methodology is applied irrespective of the commodity: cars, mobile phones, tomatoes, lipstick, fridges, land or human beings.
Slavery in all but name
Trading in human beings – historically known as slavery – is now called trafficking. It is a term which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says “can be misleading: it places emphasis on the transaction aspects of a crime that is more accurately described as enslavement”. The worldwide spread of market fundamentalism (or globalization), Victor Malerek says in The Natashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade, “has created people who are vulnerable and easily enslaved”, giving rise, he states, to there being “more human slaves in the world today than ever before in history”. And apparently they are cheaper than they have ever been.
Modern slavery or trafficking of persons is the second most profitable, organized and destructive global criminal activity after drugs, and within the next five years is expected to ascend to the number one spot. It is a huge, highly profitable worldwide business that is destroying the lives of millions of vulnerable people. Men and women who have the misfortune to be born into poverty, are poorly educated, desperate and, therefore easily manipulated by “recruitment agents”, who paint a false picture of decent, well paid, legitimate work in one or other of the major cities of the world.
Trafficking is the exploitation of people, day after day, for years on end. Men – often supported by women ex-victims – drive human trafficking, specifically trafficking for sex, which is a major cause of the spread of HIV/Aids, fuelled by arrogant men who refuse to wear condoms.
Millions of victims, innocent and vulnerable, are trafficked into a life of extreme exploitation, violent abuse and slavery. At the heart of this 21st century epidemic are women, mainly young: most are under 24, some are as young as six, always poor, desperate and frightened. They make up 80 per cent of an unknown total number of people trafficked every year. Although the US State Department say it is around one million, the figure could just as easily be double that. What is known is that many women are forced into prostitution of some kind or another and sex slavery – constituent parts of the burgeoning global commercial sex industry (CSI). The language of market fundamentalism facilitating a subtle acceptance of the criminal and inhumane; for what is commercial is good and industry must be encouraged at any cost; it feeds the economy, which must be constantly stoked in order to fuel economic growth, which as we know is the source of lasting happiness. So goes the dishonest, corporate political propaganda, rooted as it is in self-interest and thoroughly intoxicated by profit.
The CSI has been given a major boost by the Internet, providing as it (currently) does, an unregulated platform for pornography. The pornographic material freely floating around cyberspace is beyond shocking. The statistics are startling: over 12 per cent of all internet sites deal in pornography of one kind or another – totaling 420 million. Every month there are 72 million worldwide (primarily male) visitors to pornographic websites packed with explicit pornographic images, many showing abusive practices, which feed into and strengthen a conditioned view that defines women in a purely sexual manner and promotes the idea of a woman as a sexual object or commodity to be used for pleasure, exploited and abused fully and totally. The proliferation of online porn is a major factor in the ever-growing commodification and sexualization of women and young girls. While this is not necessarily new, the accessibility is. Extreme sexual behaviour, such as paedophilia, bestiality and rape, that saturates the internet encourages obsessive behaviour and is a crippling, poisonous ingredient in the lives not only of girls and women, but also of men, young and not so young.
Debt, abuse and exploitation
“Forced” or “bonded” labour is a major factor in the trafficking of women, as indeed it is of men. The International Labour Organization (ILO) say as many as “21 million people are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys” – the totals may and probably are much higher.
“The most widely used method of enslaving people around the world,” according to Anti-Slavery, is through bonded labour. “A person becomes a bonded labourer,” it says, “when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan”. It has been a method of control, imprisonment and exploitation of the poor for centuries and is today highly prevalent in South Asia, particularly India – the hub for the trafficking of women in the region. Rooted in the unjust caste system, it primarily affects the Dalits (or untouchables) and Adivasi (indigenous) people, who make up 9 per cent or more of India’s 1.3 billion population. The ILO estimates that almost 12 million people in the Asia-Pacific area are trapped in bonded labour, due overwhelmingly to debt. Bonded labour occurs because “of poverty and the existence of people who are prepared to exploit the desperation of others”. India, where bonded labour is rampant, boasts of a decade of 9 per cent growth, and yet because all wealth is concentrated in the hands of the elite and the aspiring, India has the highest percentage of malnourished children: the poor are growing in number, levels of inequality are greater than ever, desperate parents are selling their daughters and young women are being forced to take loans from unscrupulous “recruitment agents”.
Loans are taken either to meet the requirements of daily living, or in order to pay traffickers/agents fees for services, which include providing documentation (often forged) and travel expenses. Women, in their quest to find employment, become victims of trafficking at this stage. Some are aware that they are entering the CSI but most are not. However, the appalling conditions and violent abuse that is part and parcel of trafficking is completely hidden from them. Others are recruited when pregnant – the commodity being the newborn baby – and sold on the black market: “the profit is divided between the traffickers, doctors, lawyers, border officials and others”. The mother, if she is lucky, may “receive a few hundred US dollars”, records Louise Shelley in Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective. Brokers are the initial criminal contact; they charge extortionate fees for their “services” and load interest charges of up to 40 per cent onto loans, trapping women and their families into a never-ending cycle of debt and perpetual enslavement.
The only way of paying the loan back is through working for nothing. Banjit from Thailand was trafficked into Britain in 2005 and incurred a debt of GBP 27,000, the Guardian reports. On arrival in London her passport was confiscated by a Thai brothel keeper who told her “she would be able to pay off the debt within two to three months by providing “services” to buyers such as anal sex and sex without a condom”. She was forced to work seven days a week in brothels all over the city and give all her earnings to the Thai “madam”. Realizing “she would never be able to repay the debt, Banjit eventually ran away without her passport and turned to the police for help”.
A report published in 2012 by Foundation Scelle estimated there to be around 42 million prostitutes worldwide: how many, one wonders, are imprisoned by debt bondage?
Returnees, or “broken-in-girls”, as well as taking on the role of “guardians” or “jailers” in destination countries, are used to persuade young girls to become commercial sex workers. “Sex traffickers often train girls themselves, raping them and teaching them how to behave with “clients”, reports Victor Malerek. The only way some women can escape their own enslavement is to return home and recruit young girls. An Albanian woman told the Guardian how she returned to her home town and told ex-school friends “that there were great opportunities in the UK for them, you know, as waitresses and even as dancers… I felt like I had stuck a knife in my own stomach, knowing what I was taking them to, but I could not stand one more day [in the brothel].”
Traffickers scour the planet looking for potential victims. They find them in at least 127 countries, UNODC reports, and put them to work in over 137 countries. New opportunities for the ever-watchful criminal predators are created by natural disasters (many caused by global warming) that have left millions homeless, impoverished and vulnerable, as well as major global events such as the end of the Cold War, the integration of China into the global economy and the break up of the former Soviet Union. Repressive regimes, from which people are seeking escape, also provide fertile ground for traffickers. The majority of citizens (90 per cent) fleeing the repression and poverty in North Korea, for example, are women. Almost all who find their way into China are herded into the CSI. Protesting victims are deported by their criminal handlers back to North Korea, where “they are thrown into gulags or are executed. Some 30,000 victims of sex trafficking die each year,” relates Dana Liebelson in “Nine out of ten women escaping North Korea are trafficked”. In all cases women’s vulnerability is the common thread, leading to violent exploitation, humiliation and suffering.
Imagine a just and fair system
Measures are needed to prevent the trafficking of women: awareness programmes to deter girls from migrating and improved access to schooling and higher education; stringent enforcement of national trafficking laws and the observation and implementation of international covenants; plus the eradication of official/police corruption. All such common sense measures would be helpful. Added to this, a change in destructive gender attitudes is required, together with a reassessment of the current economic model that encourages the commodification and commercialization of everything, including people, specifically women.
Trafficking is the extreme inevitability of a distorted economic system, which fuels inequality and encourages profiteering, greed and the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society. A fundamental shift away from such a divisive system, which has failed the vast majority of people and caused environmental mayhem throughout the world, to a model based on the creation of social justice and greater levels of equality is needed. The current model, Arundhati Roy states, has “reduced the idea of justice to mean just human rights” – and, let us add, retribution. She says “the idea of dreaming of equality became blasphemous. We are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs to be replaced.” We need, she rightly asserts, to “redefine the meaning of modernity”, to alter the way life is organized and to create the possibility of looking “at something without thinking of it as a resource to feed the kind of capitalism that is leading the planet to a crisis”, and causing immense suffering to millions of the most vulnerable people in the world.
While economic prosperity for nation states is important, we should ask, as does P. Sainath, “who is this growth for”? The corporations and multinationals is the immediate reply. The proceeds of growth must and should be shared among the people and not collected into the already overflowing coffers of the wealthy and aspiring. Such a move would be a giant step towards establishing greater levels of equality and social justice and would make many disadvantaged people a great deal less vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation.