The trouble with “trafficking”

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Human trafficking is always a popular news item, but the coinciding of a number of stories about it over the past fortnight has raised an interesting point that usually gets lost in the hysteria: the ambiguity of the term itself, and how it can easily be stretched or narrowed to cover or exclude certain phenomena, depending on the purpose it’s used for.

To put the issue in context, here are the pieces that caught my eye: The Ashton Kutcher-Village Voice row over child sex trafficking statistics; brothel raids in Midleton and Belfast; a Stephen King opinion on the link between trafficking and restrictions on migrant labour; and evidence of exploitation in the domestic sector.

The question of how we define “trafficking” is relevant to all these stories. The international definition is contained in the UN Palermo Protocol, which describes it in Article 3(a) as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

“Exploitation”, meanwhile,

shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.


The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used.

The definition was reached as a compromise between abolitionist-minded states who wanted to bring virtually all forms of prostitution within its parameters, and states that have legalised prostitution and sought a definition compatible with their domestic laws. Although abolitionist feminists in particular tend to be unhappy with the definition that was settled on, in fact it is broad enough to potentially encompass a very wide range of sex industry phenomena – from the stereotypical (but rare) kidnapped girls chained to beds, to the much more common cases of adults who knew they were migrating into sex work but endure working conditions much worse than they were promised. All of these, under Palermo, could be described as “trafficked”.

This framework helps to explain some of the “trafficking” anomalies that arise: for one thing, why estimates of the number of victims vary so widely. Not only are they inevitably guesswork, but it’s rarely clear whether the Palermo definition, or something broader or narrower, has been used. It also explains why, as in the Midleton raid, the persons “rescued” are so often arrested themselves. Consent to their exploitation might not exclude them from the Palermo definition of a trafficking victim but you can bet it factors into whether they are treated as a victim under criminal and/or immigration law.

Finally, it may explain why there is always such an enormous gulf between the victim estimates and the numbers actually punished under trafficking laws. This is where the Irish Times piece on abused domestic workers comes in. The women described in that article were almost certainly “trafficked” under the Palermo definition: brought to Ireland and forced to work under severely exploitative conditions which they are unlikely to have been warned of. The same goes for the Gama workers, and there are many other examples. But most Palermo state parties, when they deal with these issues at all, prefer to do so under employment law rather than criminal law. The panic over sex trafficking might serve as an incentive to apply somewhat harsher standards in that industry, but the precedent of mass prosecutions for exploiting people who weren’t literally forced into their job in the first place is one they may well be reluctant to establish.

In a sense, those who argued for a broad definition may have dug this hole themselves: by bringing such a wide range of labour exploitation within its ambit, they ensured the existence of a “trafficking” phenomenon much bigger than any state’s criminal justice system can deal with. At the same time, as part of their efforts to eradicate prostitution entirely, they have promoted an equation of “trafficking” and “sex slavery” which has strongly shaped how this phenomenon is popularly conceived. The consequence is a discourse in which there is wide recognition of a massive problem of human trafficking but very little understanding of what it actually involves. And instead of trying to curb labour exploitation wherever it occurs, governments are pressurised to focus on sex industry-specific measures which are likely mainly to result in the arrest and deportation of migrant women – who, as Stephen King notes, may well have seen sex work as the best of their limited options.

There isn’t an easy solution to this dilemma. For one thing, it would require resolving the ideological dispute over prostitution that made a hash of Palermo to begin with. But recognition of the wide variety of situations that “human trafficking” can describe, the way the definition is and can be manipulated to suit different agendas, and the importance of viewing the subject from a labour rights perspective would be a good initial step.

Photo of UK Police officers outside the Chinese Medical Centre in Newcastle where UK Border Agency officials conducted a raid on the premises courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph.

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Wendy Lyon regularly blogs at Feminist Ire

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