It is now an accepted cliche of television crime drama - the fight against organized sex-slavery and sex-trafficking, the heroic compassion of cops rescuing (almost always) women from their captors. Often these victims are portrayed as having been literally kidnapped, occasionally sold by parents; certainly they end up in the hands of evil men. The tales, whether marketed on CSI-type shows or television newsmedia or by anti-trafficking NGOs, are usually lurid, moralizing, often exaggerated, frequently racist, and don’t often suggest a serious attempt to understand what is really happening and why. Which isn’t to say that terrible things are not happening, obviously and banally.
But right at the moment, I’m not talking about DynCorp. The following comments are based upon personal observation and involvements, and certainly don’t amount to some definitive account of the phenomena being discussed. They also relate to events a few years ago, and I am hardly an expert. But of the instances of which I am directly aware, the following seems to me a reasonable account, and a set of reasonable assertions as to how policy and practice can act.
Put simply, there are people in Australia, or have been very recently, without the legal right to work in the sex-industries (or any other economies), sometimes without the legal right to be in Australia at all, and yet working in legal brothels - where these exist. The number in Melbourne has increased in my adult life, though not to enormous numbers - again, so far as I can tell. And economies, profitable activities, are based around this fact. But to understand why and how it is necessary to consider where the imperative is for such economies.
Some would say these are ‘contract workers’, some ‘trafficked women’ - the truth, insofar as it has been accessible to me, seems different from and/or somewhere between what is usually taken to be meant by either term, whether normalising or luridly outraged. (I’ve only seen women, which I suppose doesn’t prove that there are not others around.)
At least in the cases I’ve seen, the central imperatives and conditions of possibility of this particular kind of market - that of getting people into Australia for informal sex-work - really doesn’t seem to have been coming from brothel owners per se. While there have been periods of labour shortage - ie. times where it has been more difficult for brothel-owners to recruit enough of the workers they want to have - this market isn’t primarily driven by the need for more workers, or even for particular kinds of workers (by which I mean nationalities/ethnicities). Though I suppose a profit squeeze - owners are always claiming that there is one, not always plausibly - might increase the tendency of owners to take certain kinds of risk, in general there are already people here who are just as easy to hire, including non-white people for various racialized niche-markets; multiculturalism, immigration, remember?
Plus, now, an enormous labour market of international students with limited work rights and limited employment possibilities, required to not fail at full-time study on penalty of deportation or, at best, an extremely expensive repeating of subjects.
So entrepreneurs seeking to profit from sex-work economies know that there are certainly people available for work.
And I’m not aware of evidence that it is really that much cheaper or easier for the legal establishments involved to have these people working. Whatever benefits may exist for most of these may be real, but hardly overwhelming enough in themselves to motor some global conspiracy of criminals. The middle men taking people to and from the brothels seemed formally separate from the brothel itself, in any case.
For related reasons, I assume, in these cases the imperatives of this particular market mostly aren’t derived from clients either.
And so I’m suggesting that the driving imperatives of this market are from those who come to work. Not least because sex-work, like many other industries globally, is integrated into the global remittance economies. People in first world countries are often still not truly aware of the shift in the forms of both cross-border and labour mobility, of the emerging intersections of border regulation and economy, and of the parallel rise of remittance economies in ‘third world’ countries. It is now common in many places for families to survive on money sent back by relatives and spouses working overseas, for years at a time in many cases: a brother in oil-fields in the Middle East, a daughter working as a nanny in any first-world economy, a mother working as a sex-worker in Australia. This currency sent back to home is not only the basis of life of enormous numbers of people, whose conditions of existence and even odds for survival would very often be significantly altered downwards without such income; this money is now the largest source of foreign currency in many nations. When the US started pressuring countries to shut down the organized sending back of cash to the Philippines, on the basis that some of this money might conceivably be being used to help fund leftist guerrillas or other groups, this seriously threatened the Philippines’ economy, the basis of life of a big chunk of the population, even the stability of the state.
Anti-trafficking groups now sometimes address issues of border control, at least to the extent of suggesting that people rescued from traffickers (or arrested for visa-violating sex-work, the difference is often rhetorical) should not be deported. And police are sometimes happy enough to agree, at least until they have given evidence against the traffickers and sex-slavers. Politicians often want to take a strong stand against (sex-)slavery: the issue is a good one for push-button moralizing law’n'order talk. Which might at least mean better treatment for some of those concerned. As long as they are victims of trafficking and not criminals conspiring to falsify a basis of entry and illegally work in Australia.
So if I am faced with police asking me what I am doing working in a brothel with false papers and no legal right to work at all, I can either: (a) say I entered into a contract with someone to supply me with false papers and get me into the country and get me a job, so I could send money back home in many cases, or (b) say I was tricked into being a sex-slave by evil traffickers. The differences in how I get treated, based upon what I choose, can be enormous. Help and support, sympathy and victim-status, residency at least for a while, versus being criminalized, charged with being a whore, jailed or caged in a a detention center, deported. (Of course, even if I say I was knowingly entering into agreements to do these things, I could still get myself some better treatment possibly if I provided evidence against those who I paid for these services - they can still be arrested and can still receive very serious sentences. Which is one reason why costs have gone up for such services.)
I’m not saying people are lying, though these differences and the agendas of cops and social workers and NGOs gives a bunch of reason why I might make those choices. But many campaigns against sex-slavery are really campaigns against ‘trafficking’, often equated with the organized, profitable arrangement of illegal border crossing, especially if such crossing and related ’services’ are to be paid for, by the person doing the crossing, from income generated in the work performed at the destination. Any campaign along these lines which wants sympathy for victims of trafficking, but which doesn’t address what should happen to people who knew what they were doing and had very good reasons (emotive eg: the survival of entire families in dire poverty in insert-Third-World-country), is objectively seeking to institutionalize the conditions under which people will be faced with the choices noted above.
The cliches of anti-trafficking will both circulate and continue to have an objective basis. Harsh border control regimes, strong anti-trafficking law, means that those organizing these activities have strong reasons to want to control those they bring in while they are here and working. This itself is a kind of abuse, and isolation and control opens up the space for further abuse, further disempowering those coming in. And the costs those who work here pay, the contract which says money comes back for getting into the country and being able to work, goes up on the basis of risk - even apart from the difficulty isolated and disempowered individuals in a foreign country have in asserting themselves.
Sex-work is a key industry for this activity in large part because it is a relatively high-income, often informal if not illegal economy for which no particular or recognized skills or credentials are required. Because of the potential size of the income, especially relative to those in the most common countries of origin, it is possible for someone working here to support a number of people through remittances - sometimes a large number of people. Etcetera.