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Shadow economies, part 3

By Beth Connors-Manke

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, Beth discussed sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Here, she ends the series by considering how the economy of human trafficking denies individuals a place in the public sphere.

In the course of this series, I’ve gotten to speak with, or listen to, anti-trafficking activists of various stripes: lawyers, academic researchers, social workers, politicians, grassroots activists, and once a survivor of sex trafficking. In my research, I’ve found mostly statistics and anecdotes—articles on the topic generally read: “there are this many victims, and here’s a representative story.” When speakers who have survived trafficking come to town, they are usually women, and it’s usually about sexual slavery.

In other words, in most of the discourse about the issue, the response is numbers and drama. Sometimes the discussion wades into the structural elements, economic and cultural, that contribute to human trafficking, but rarely does it go deeply into those waters.

That’s to be expected. Anti-trafficking activists are attempting interventions that will affect lives right now, whether that be through legislation, law enforcement practices, social services, or consumer awareness. All of this is necessary and timely, and there is much work to be done.

However, in my last piece in this series, I’d like to ask different questions, ones that reflect on the direction of our public sphere. 

Appearing in public

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt identifies two aspects of the “public realm.” First, that it is a space of appearance, meaning that it is the realm in which things are seen and heard by others and by ourselves. A bit abstract, but Arendt’s point is that what we put forth in front of others helps make the shared reality of a society. That which we hide away—our private shames, our collective societal sins—lives a shadowy existence and can feel less than real because it doesn’t see the light of day.

Let me give an example. In the past year, there was a suicide in my family. This was an intensely private tragedy, about which my family only speaks quietly. Rarely I have brought forth the suicide in public discussions about the pharmaceutical industry and irresponsible prescribing of depression medication. The private grief is distinct from the public discussion, which has an entirely different purpose: to change our society’s approach to depression. If I never speak about the suicide outside the privacy of family discussions, then the death of my uncle never comes to affect the larger world.

Arendt’s second point about the public realm: it “signifies the world itself,” that amazing construction of human politics, culture, arts, and science. In Arendt’s view, we hold the public world in common, yet we are separated by it at the same time. Although it may seem a radical idea in our current social and political climate, Arendt believes we can share our public world without abdicating our particular selves. She thinks that we can be many, but not the same, and still live in community together. In other words, I don’t have to make everyone else be like me in order to live with them. I don’t have to kill you if you have different religious or political beliefs; I don’t have to oppress you if you are racially, ethnically, or economically different from me. I don’t have to shut you out of the public world. It’s a fact of life, says Arendt, that humans have many ways of being—why work against that?

The link between the two aspects of the public sphere (I’m getting to human trafficking soon, I promise) is that we must allow all kinds of people to “appear” in the shared public realm. When we deny them that appearance, they are forced into the shadows and away from the discussions that shape who and what we are as a society. One current example of denying persons appearance is the push for voter identification laws that would disenfranchise the homeless, the poor, the elderly, and certain segments of the African-American and Latino communities. This campaign from the Right aims to push certain citizens out of the conversation about the future of our country.

But what about those who are living even deeper in the shadows, those whose who are being coerced and enslaved? Those who sometimes have no rights as citizens? Those who are entrapped when they are young and are now locked into the shadow economy of human trafficking?

The ethics of seeing

Scholar Kimberley Curtis would answer those questions this way: we have the responsibility to see what is present, to be open to lives that are radically—and sometimes tragically—different from our own. If we don’t have first-person experience with those lives, then we have to practice imagining the conditions of others’ lives so we can help make space for them in the public world.

Imagining others’ lives is a tricky experiment. First, it requires an awareness of the fact that, at bottom, I can’t really know another’s experience. I can observe it, think it through based on my own values and philosophies, but in the final analysis, it is out of my reach. This is, I believe, why Arendt asserts that the common public world has to be consciously built—there is no automatic bond of understanding between members of a society. Even in the private sphere, the sense of a shared family experience is constructed from values habitually repeated and acted out.

Second, imaging the lives of those who are relegated to the shadows leads to a temptation—the temptation to see those individuals as simply “voiceless victims.” And, to see oneself as their representative in the public sphere. As the cliché goes, the righteous are called to be a voice for the oppressed. While this type of advocacy is sometimes necessary, it ignores that fact that we have created a public sphere in which certain individuals and groups are, by the rules of the game itself, elbowed out of the discussion. Or worse yet, denied the simplest human rights: shelter, food, safety, health care, or the ability to work of one’s own free will.

This series on human trafficking, as well as my earlier articles on the feminicide in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have been an attempt to envision lives swallowed up by shadow economies. I have tried to imagine those tortured and killed in Mexico by the drug cartels. I have tried to imagine sixteen-year-old girls whose bodies are sold for sex in the basements of middle class homes. I have tried to imagine enslaved agricultural laborers in Immokalee, Fla. In each case, the reality of their lives has destabilized my world. I cannot square their brutal exploitation with the circumstances of my own life.

In imagining these other lives and their dire circumstances, my world has cracked.

Curtis would say this is necessary. If I’m not willing to face the situations and people that most shake my view of the world, then my sense of the world grows too rigid. I end up in an echo chamber telling myself things that aren’t, in fact, true.

Here is what isn’t true: that we are marching toward greater and greater social progress. Here is what is true: we have to fight the same battles repeatedly in order to preserve freedom and safety for ourselves and others.

Here is what isn’t true: that humans are fundamentally good—or even fundamentally want to be good. Here is what is true: we have to teach ourselves to be good and make it a part of every level of our social systems.

When my sense of the world is narrowed to my own automatic reactions, my ability to see the reality of others is diminished. Then, I may have fewer scruples about denying them the ability to vote, or to have healthcare in the U.S., or to work free from coercion. I push them into the shadows.

Freeing labor

So, needless to say, writing about human trafficking has been a blow to many of the ideas I hold dear, many of the beliefs to which I desperately want to cleave. Unfortunately, talking to lawyers about anti-trafficking laws, listening to police officers talk about protocols, attending presentations about buying fair trade chocolate—none of these have given me much hope for the victims of human trafficking. I don’t see hope there because few of these approaches make more room for trafficking victims in the public sphere. They are still in the shadows; we’re just trying to make the shadows less dark, less harsh. They are still “victims without voices.” We’re still putting band-aids on structural problems in our economy and in our political sphere.

I have seen one proposal that seeks to shift the rules of the game. And while I cannot speak to the technical legal aspects of law professor James Gray Pope’s proposal, I do see it as a move toward allowing trafficked laborers a place in the public sphere.

In “A Free Labor Approach to Human Trafficking,” Pope argues that laws and interventions solely focused on prohibiting human trafficking have several weaknesses. First, they oversimplify the situation by making it a moral equation: evil traffickers exploit pathetic, weak victims. In this equation, the blame falls on the middleman, not on the companies that use, and profit from, labor trafficking. It also presumes victims have no power or agency.

Second, prosecuting anti-trafficking cases requires lots of energy and resources from governmental agencies and ancillary organizations. Prosecution of trafficking cases at times also exposes immigrant victims to the dangers of detention and deportation.

Finally, the prohibition approach does not insure that freed individuals will have access to non-servile jobs. Without that option, they are back to square one.

A complement to prohibition laws would be a free labor approach, which, in brief, would give workers more power to leave enslavers and find other employers. “The free labor system operates” writes Pope, “as a nemesis to slavery and involuntary servitude. By exercising their Thirteenth Amendment right to change employers, workers exert the ‘power below’ necessary to give employers the ‘incentive above’ to avoid slavery and servitude. The right at issue is formulated positively as ‘the right to change employers,’ not negatively, as ‘the right to be free from involuntary servitude.’”

Pope believes a free labor approach has several strengths. It focuses on workers’ rights, not on prosecuting the bad guy, first. It emphasizes worker self-activity, meaning workers’ own organized efforts, rather than requires law enforcement resources. It attends to the creation of alternatives to slave work, by empowering workers to build their own companies, organizations, or affiliations. To support his thesis, Pope cites examples of quarry workers in India, the Domestic Workers United (DWU) in the U.S., and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Fla.

A tall order

My intention in discussing the Pope’s free labor approach is not to debate the intricacies of labor law; rather, I want to point out that there is more than one way to fight human trafficking. The way we choose to fight enslavement depends heavily on our willingness to allow the marginalized to take their own action. We have to change the ground rules so they have power in the public sphere.

This is a tall order because all workers, trafficked or not, are in precarious waters right now. With the recession grinding on and with the gleeful architects of austerity measures chanting their refrains about “the new normal,” too many laborers are watching their protections and powers fall away. If I may add one more thing I know to be true, it is this: exploitative labor conditions tend to spread, like the invasive kudzu, to everything around them—choking out what was once healthy and thriving and leaving only a failing system.

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