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On the Pitfalls of Awareness: Tangible Ways to Affect Human Trafficking

Kate D’Adamo

January has long been dedicated to the awareness of human trafficking, the month where groups show movies, host talks, and re-share articles about how every city is the newest hub of trafficking. Staggering amounts of funding are dedicated towards “public awareness” campaigns encouraging us to see something and then say something, often while not even letting the person know of your intentions.

Here’s my confession: I don’t believe in “public awareness.” Not as it’s done right now.

Human trafficking awareness, as it’s currently done, overwhelmingly declares that to stop trafficking, everyone should be sniffing out perpetrators and calling police. We are asked to profile so-called victims and call the cops under the guise of saving someone — all while we take actions every day which contribute to the trafficking and exploitation of others.

We are letting ourselves off the hook as consumers, as employers, and as caring communities.

For example, the hotel industry being a hub of trafficking in persons, and campaigns and trainings are being organized to alert hotel employees and patrons alike to look for clear indicators. If you look to the federal approach, however, these “clear” indicators include things like “excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia,” “individuals waiting at a table or bar and picked up by a male (trafficker or customer),” and “individuals dress inappropriately for their age.” Any guess at who they’re actually ended up profiling?

(Hint: Incomplete, emotionally-based information leads people to fill in the very large gaps with their own judgments and stereotypes. The recent spate of trafficking trainings for airline personnel has ended up mostly racially profiling and detaining Asian women traveling with non-Asian men, not trafficking victims. )

Instead of focusing on trying to determine trafficking survivors by whether or not they’re carrying more than three condoms, or wearing a mini-skirt, we should focus on the exploitation that is practically standard in low-wage labor, supply chains and informal work. For example, asking hotels to search for sex workers as the primary form of fighting trafficking ignore is the long history of exploitation of an industry which uses substantial subcontractors for duties including housekeeping. In 2009 the Hyatt Corporation was implicated in a civil suit alleging wide-spread use of trafficked and exploited labor and ended up settling with the plaintiffs. Many of these plaintiffs were women of color, brought in front the Philippines on temporary work visas, a program rife with systemic problems which increase vulnerability. That same year, another civil suit looked to a location in Florida for similar violations. Both hotels had used the recruitment companies Northwest Recruiting and DHI, which place workers within the hotel industry. Despite the consistent identification of problems, these companies are still operating in the United States.

Ethical consumption of goods is one of the most important methods of fighting exploitation and trafficking. While many tout that saving women and children is their goal in fighting trafficking, the extensive trafficking in the garment industry, of which 68% of workers are women, and the textile industry, which is 45% female, goes largely ignored by these conversations.

As consumers enjoy faster turn around for cheap goods, many of the major retailers are relying on workers in the global south working on barely subsistence wages. In Bangladesh, for example, the average monthly take-home pay, including two hours of daily overtime, was roughly half of what was considered a living wage.

According to Nazma Aktar, founder of the Bangladeshi labor rights organization the Awaj Foundation,

“H&M, Primark, Asda, Tesco, M&S — they come here [many of the brands buy direct through their own offices in Dhaka, but may also employ third parties such as Top Grade] because Bangladesh is cheap and they get cheap labour. It is not fair. Humans cannot be so cheap. There needs to be a balance — you cannot say you are trying to improve working conditions and help workers out on one hand when on the other hand you are not giving a fair price.”

“Consumers in [the West] have a big responsibility. They get things so cheap. They have to think about how these companies are doing business. The multinationals take our blood and our sweat. Consumers need to know where their clothes are coming from and what the working hours and conditions are. We need to look at the living conditions, not the working conditions.”

If we are to truly engage in ending human trafficking, the first step is to stop our contributions to the exploitation of vulnerable workers. It is impossible to be a perfectly ethical consumer — there will never be enough information and frankly, most of us couldn’t afford it. However, there are ways to make decisions which support companies making the effort to treat workers well and root out the exploitation in their supply chains.

Travel Ethically. Find out if your hotel and airline are unionized by going to when booking your next trip or conference. The site is operated by Unitehere, a union which is pushing for the living wages of hotel workers across the country. In cities which have unionized hotels, workers have won significant wage and benefits increases compared to non-unionized cities.

Choose your area and educate yourself. We’re not going to be perfect in every area of consumption. Choose an area in your life where you’re willing to commit some time to research and make decisions about what you will and won’t support. I can’t eat shrimp outside of Louisiana because of the rampant exploitation in most of the US market. I avoid Hershey’s chocolate and opt for Newman’s Own. But I fully recognize that those are luxury goods which I can simply choose not to purchase; I still shop at H&M and have very real ethical qualms about how much I need new clothes when I do.

Tip your waitstaff. And hotel staff. And sex workers. Tipping is survival for a lot of folks in a lot of industries. If you want to easily contribute directly to peoples’ livelihoods, tip and do it in cash.

Care about immigration. Foreign nationals often have few economic options, meaning low-wage and under the table work are the way to survive. Fears about deportation and discrimination keep an easy button to push for threatening managers who don’t want information about working conditions exposed. Protection for vulnerability at work is about preventing human trafficking. Support immigrant populations and support protections for immigrant labor.

Looking for exploitative labor should not be about trying to profile and is based on the idea that we have no place in the conversation. It asks individuals to spot moments completely disconnected from our lives, understand their nuance, and make a decision about the next few moments of that person’s’ life. This tells us that trafficking is close, but lets us off the hook for our own behavior. Ending exploitation begins at home — it begins when we look at our own lives and finding ways to live our values and trust that when everyone makes those small changes in their lives, collectively we can impact the world.

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