by Anastasia Maillot
As I read several parts from Rhacel Parreñas’ Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo she introduced me to a rather terrifying fact. Philippine women migrating to Japan in search of hostess jobs are the most trafficked population in the world, working in conditions where their passports are taken and where they have no other option but to continue working in what I would call modern slavery or servitude with a nonexistent salary. As a response to the growing issues concerning Philippine migrants, the Japanese government has imposed stricter rules to entertainment visas, which has in turn barred the route for legal ways into the country and caused illegal entry through middlemen to flourish. Although Parrenãs brings out the positive in hostess work by explaining that few of the Philippine women feel like victims but instead see it as a way to gather money for their future or their families back home, I think there is a huge problem here, something that seems almost ignored; these women live in servitude, a form of modern slavery. This is not a job they do out of good will but because they have no choice.
Wasn’t slavery supposed to be over since the civil war? After reading Parreñas, I had to investigate and see it for myself. The truth is, there are more people living in slavery today than ever before. The site Free The Slaves estimates that at least 27 million people live in slavery, half of them being children. Moreover, I was shocked even further to find out from Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, that human trafficking more specifically is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. This means that today, what crosses our borders most often are not drugs or weapons, but human beings treated as mindless objects and sold into servitude. So, no, slavery is not over and it would be a mistake to say that it does not exist in the Global North, because it does. There seems to be this misconception that whatever atrocities happen in the Global South do not happen in “our countries”. We fail to understand that this phenomenon is everywhere around us, in factories, mines, brothels, farms, restaurants and construction sites. We simply close our eyes from the fact that we carry clothing made with extremely cheap labor and eat food from farmers that are deliberately exploited. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that anyone working as a stripper or as a hostess is most likely doing it because they chose to do so and want to.
Parreñas does say that people get involved into this because of the need for money. The Philippines is a good example as a country, because of its economic dependence on these women who leave their country in search for a better income either as hostesses or nannies. But this also puts these women in very fragile positions in host countries, as some of them might be ready to do anything to feed their family back home. This sense of necessity exists everywhere. There have even been cases in the US where parents have sold their children into slavery, although it remains more marginal than in the Global South. Still, we participate into this process by providing the demand to those middlemen, who then go out to look for these women, children or even men. We need to stop ignoring the alarming fact that more and more people are becoming victims due to economic necessities and do something about it, as trafficking and thus slavery is an issue that affects every nation in the world.
Governments have generally been slow or reluctant to do anything about trafficking, preferring to cover the issue with a band aid and hoping that things will eventually get better. Now, I understand the difficulty of tracking down the middlemen who sell these victims, not to mention the buyers or the customers. However, I came across a reading, Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It, by David Batstone, that introduced me to several different cases of slavery and trafficking in different countries and how the problem was successfully dealt with. Most often people have witnessed face to face the difficulties of the victims, felt compassionate and started searching for alternatives. In Thailand for example, a woman set up a jewelry business in which she recruited women from brothels, giving them a proper job, opportunities and restored their self-confidence. In Peru, a local woman provided temporary housing and activities out of benevolence for street children who face violence, trafficking and uncertainty every day. In many countries, most notably in Italy, churches work actively to rescue victims of trafficking and pulling them out of slavery by giving them a better life with opportunities. By working locally, we can make things change, but this requires the effort of everyone, not just “the chosen few”. As the example of Parreñas on the Japanese government showed, simple restrictions and ignorance of the actual heart of the issue will not solve anything, but instead create more illegal routes for trafficking and slavery to happen. A wider safety net for trafficked people is needed and the victims should not be punished for coming to the police and asking for help.
It is easy to ignore these issues, to think that it isn’t happening in your country or that it is too difficult to get involved. By thinking like this we will never be able to change things and rescue victims from the unacceptable conditions they live in all over the world. I acknowledge that with the resources we have now it is not possible to save everyone, but in order to tackle these issues we must think positively and proceed step by step. There are many options out there for us to explore, many cases in which local people have taken a step forward and done something about it. Even one victim with better opportunities, a real job and a much better life is already a victory in our battle against human trafficking and slavery.