Monday, March 9, 2009

Is Human Trafficking Slavery? Exploring the Analogy between Modern Trafficking in Humans and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

According to various sources, millions of people worldwide are enslaved, and each year thousands of people are trafficked into the U.S. The modern “re-emergence” of trafficking in human beings and of slavery is said to be linked to the deepening interconnection among countries in the global economy, overpopulation (with its consequent production of disposable people), and the economic and other vulnerabilities of the victims.
Some have analogized to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in order to emphasize the similarities in the two forms of exploitation and to urge that like-minded people rise up to end the appalling practice, much as was eventually done to end the trans-Atlantic trade. The content of the analogies varies with the intent of their users. Either “the old slavery” is compared to “the new slavery” with respect to, for example, the exploitative treatment of the victims, the dependence of the illicit trade on the legitimate global economy, or the gender, race, ethnicity, or economic vulnerability of the victims in order to distinguish the new slavery from the old. Some invoke the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery to assume a mantle of self-righteousness, and distance themselves, their political and economic system, their state and its efforts, from the repugnant phenomenon.
I claim that the analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery is relevant and potentially useful. It has the potential to contribute to our understanding of modern trafficking in humans and thus lead to mechanisms to combat human trafficking in the twenty-first century. However, those who have used the analogy have failed to explore it other than superficially, or to adequately map out the similarities and differences between the two forms of exploitation. As a consequence, the ability to effectively combat the modern traffic in human beings (or indeed, to combat the slavery, or exploitative or forced labor, of the estimated 27 million people who are held in slavery within state borders but not trafficked) has been compromised.
The analogy to the trans-Atlantic slave trade can be relevant if explored more deeply – there are similarities not merely in individual plights but in the deeper structures of the world economic system and the factors that cause and foster the rise in the phenomena. Comparisons of the modern trafficking in humans, white slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade reveals the essential nature of the phenomena – at bottom, they all trade in human labor.

1 comment:

redwood said...

Some invoke the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery to assume a mantle of self-righteousness, and distance themselves, their political and economic system, their state and its efforts, from the repugnant phenomenon.

I appreciate your courage to reflect on what First World thinkers do when they talk about this ugly and profoundly complicated practice

Surely what brings us to slavery must have something to do with how we feel about ourselves in relation to other people, and, to that extent, self-righteousness cannot be far off.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject.