Heavy Traffic

Calls for a nuanced view of human trafficking

| June 22, 2006

Human trafficking has made its way into the American national consciousness. For evidence of this, look no further than Oprah Winfrey. A recent episode of her show was devoted to the issue, focusing on children forced into the sex trade. A compelling story, to be sure, but according to Yasmin Nair of Clamor, such depictions often devolve into 'falsehoods and hyperbole' that cheapen discussions about forced labor by focusing on human trafficking's 'sexy' symptoms instead of its causes.

Nair isn't alone in her critique. According to Debbie Nathan of The Nation, 'the media favor sex-trafficking stories over accounts of other forced work.' The reason is simple: Sex sells. Stories about forced prostitution are more easily understood than stories where prostitution is chosen -- a common phenomenon, Nathan contends -- and often more compelling than stories of forced labor at restaurants and sweatshops.

Take the case of Ricardo Veisaga, reported by Kimbriell Kelly of The Chicago Reporter. Veisaga, a former seminarian with a master's degree in political science, immigrated to the United States from Argentina. Once inside the country, Veisaga responded to a classified ad seeking employees for a Chinese restaurant. When he showed up for the job, according to Kelly, he was transported out of state and forced to work 12-hour-days at the equivalent of 51 cents per hour. He was the victim of violence, both verbal and physical, incarceration, and constant intimidation.

Stories like Veisaga's don't often make it into the dialogue about human trafficking. In fact, when the State Department calculates statistics for human trafficking, people like Veisaga don't even factor in. 'That's because,' according to Kelly, 'officials only count victims brought to the US and neglect those who were recruited within the country.'

'Trafficking exists,' Nair reports, 'but it does not require kidnapping or coercion, and it's not always about sex.' Rather, Nair identifies the 'systemic conditions of poverty' as the causes of human trafficking, and terms forced labor and prostitution the symptoms. 'Experts say trafficking within the US borders has long been a problem,' Kelly reports, 'but what grabs the attention of politicians and the public is usually cases of international trafficking, often involving sex crimes.' And that leaves people like Ricardo Veisaga with little attention or recourse.


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