Jul 27, 2014

Human Trafficking: A Symptom of Economic and Educational Access Inequality

A good friend, who is very passionate about and involved in combatting human trafficking pointed out to me that human trafficking, in most simple terms, can be defined as economic exploitation. That is, to directly or indirectly force someone to perform a service. The transaction lacks appropriate compensation and the subject performing the service by definition, lacks any other choice but to perform the service. In order to neutralize/balance this slave/master relationship, there has to be freedom of choice and fair compensation.  But how do we define freedom of choice here? Is it that the subject has the choice to opt out, or that he or she can perform the service for another/different customer/employer?
A schematic showing global human trafficking from countries of origin and destination
"Trafficking of women, children and men" by KVDP - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


If we imagine our subject to be a poor, uneducated, immigrant for example, then obviously, his or her choices are limited to begin with and opting out may not even be an option. Equally, he or she probably lacks the education and awareness to recognize that he or she is being exploited/trafficked. Lastly, any smart cartel of traffickers will form an alliance where though the subject maintains the illusion of choice, all of the "employers" offer identical compensation and working conditions. Here, it is easy to see how the definition of exploitation and trafficking can be expanded to include much of what goes on in our post modern capitalist society. Drug companies have a cartel of lawyers to protect, at all cost, their intellectual property rights and patents on high demand and life saving cancer drugs that they, as a result, can mark up as they wish. Not only they are exploiting cancer patients who have no choice but to pay for these drugs, they set the price extremely high and avoid competition by eliminating any competitors through intellectual property litigation wars. To even take this further, isn't Steve Jobs the biggest trafficker of all? He not only negotiated a secret anti-employee poaching deal with his fellow Silicon Alley tech bros to prevent engineers from earning higher salaries and having the tech giants compete for them, his beloved iPhone is made by overworked and exploited Chinese workers in overcrowded and unsafe factories.

Isn't the entire capitalist system founded on various forms of market exploitation with the illusion of freedom of choice as its happy-face facade? But what about the alternative? Wasn't the Soviet style communism the greatest example of human exploitation and trafficking? Without money and markets to regulate exchange, don't we fall back into relations of domination and servitude?

Perhaps, the ultimate remedy to purify this master/slave relationship that trafficking entails, is a fair wage or appropriate compensation. But even here we are lost. We can all agree that when we talk about people being trafficked today, we are talking about people who get paid very little to no money for the services they perform and at least a minimum wage is necessary. But how about the general population? How about you and me? Who is to decide what's fair in terms of compensation? The market? the government? A moral authority? The market fails, because it compensates based on demand, not necessarily level of effort or expertise. We all know Wall Street bankers should not get paid more than doctors, construction workers or teachers but the market couldn't care less. The market promotes, likes and encourages what sells and if trafficking means higher returns, then so be it. What about the government? The government simply makes laws and attempts to enforce them but has no control over setting "fair" wages other than the minimum wage. Governments also are powerless across borders and jurisdictions.

Okay enough intellectualizing. Where does this leave us? To say that you and I are trafficked because we lack a clear definition of a "fair" wage is misguided and naive. But it does highlight the inadequacy of government and markets to effectively prevent and eliminate trafficking. At the fundamental level, trafficking is a problem of exploitation of the vulnerable : Those who lack the resources, knowledge or skills to 1) Know they are being exploited 2) Can resist or fight back against exploitation 3) Can terminate their relationship with the exploiter without repercussions 4) Have other means for survival. To this end, what is required, is a more equal society, in terms of access to both opportunities and education. Though prosecuting traffickers is necessary, it does not address the fundamental problem of inequality of access to education and opportunities, which is much harder, more complex and nuanced problem. Trafficking is like cancer and just like cancer, it is a product and part of the very system that it threatens. Eliminating traffickers is a temporary solution as long as the system itself is not fundamentally changed to naturally resist trafficking through better education and more opportunities for all both domestically and internationally.       

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