What we can learn from listening to victims of “trafficking”

by Carol Chan

The term “trafficking” attracts funding, but it obscures how trafficking-like practices are already part of regular labour migration processes for both men and women.

Women at a skills training programme in East Java. Photo credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

A recent post by Choon Yen and Kellynn asked several important questions about the “trafficking” of Indonesians. How is trafficking represented in the media? Are all the “trafficked victims” women? What is the relationship between trafficking and sex work? Were people happy to be “rescued?” News stories or documentaries often end on a positive note after “rescue” missions. But what happens after?

I’d like to share a few vignettes from my research that address some of these questions.

An anti-trafficking workshop

Between 2012 and 2016, I spent different periods of time in Central Javanese migrant-origin villages, mainly interviewing and talking to prospective migrants, return migrants, non-migrants, and migrants’ families. For several months in late 2014, I attended and observed weekly classes for former migrant women conducted by an NGO in a migrant-sending village in Yogyakarta.

One such session was an anti-trafficking workshop to educate the women on what constitutes trafficking, and how to avoid being trafficked. An expert on trafficking, who had written several books on the matter, was invited. A short video was shown where young women were forcefully shoved in vans and put to sex work against their will.

After watching the video, the women participants were invited to share their own experiences. Many of them spoke of generally negative experiences of domestic work abroad, mainly in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia. Some spoke about forced confinement in family households, where they were also deprived of food. Many complained about how Singapore-based recruitment companies marketed and treated them like commodities to be bought and sold, and how they had to sit in shopping malls like objects.

Recruitment agents in Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong sometimes searched the women’s bags and removed food or documents that they had taken with them. Sometimes, this included contact information for relevant NGOs and the Indonesian Consulate in destination countries. Employers and recruitment agents typically withheld their passports and other identity documents, paid less than what was expected, and restricted their use of phones and communication with their family and friends.

The anti-trafficking class in Yogyakarta. Photo credit: Carol Chan

In response, the NGO staff and invited speaker framed the women’s experiences in terms of trafficking. Indeed, aspects of the women’s stories fulfilled common definitions of human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons,  by means of… coercion… or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation” (United Nations). An associated definition is that of forced labour, which consists of “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the  person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily” (International Labour Organization).

For the NGO staff, forced confinement, food deprivation, and the withholding of passports are clear indications of coercion, control, and exploitation, which means that the women had little or no choice in their working and living situations.

The women disagreed. They were not like victims of trafficking in the news. “Real” victims had no choice or documents. Instead, the women had been “legal” and regular migrants. They emphasized their agency in everyday strategies to mitigate the risks of going abroad. Some hid food among clothes, or important contact numbers inside their bras or pens.

When the NGO staff gently chided them for “allowing” others to keep their passports or overcharge them for migration fees, the former migrant women patiently explained that demanding their passports from recruiters or employers would be instead very risky and counter-productive. They might lose their jobs or employment visas, and be sent back to Indonesia with a lot of debt.

Many women were able to point to specific laws in destination countries such as Singapore, where these common practices by employers and recruiters were technically illegal. A lack of information was not the key problem. They were well aware that foreign states often fail to evenly enforce these laws for migrant women such as themselves.

Ultimately, how useful is the “trafficking” discourse and framework? As many researchers and activists in Indonesia and elsewhere (such as the U.A.E) have argued, highlighting “trafficking” as a phenomenon distinct from other kinds of labour migration obscures how trafficking-like practices are intimately part of regular labour migration processes.

“Victims of trafficking” at a migrant shelter

In 2015, I spent a week living in a Jakarta-based shelter run by the national migrant labour union, Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI). SBMI is run completely by former migrants, and part of their work involves assisting those with migration-related problems.

At the time, the vast majority of the shelter’s residents were men. Several of them had been working on board illegal Taiwanese-owned fishing ships that operated near South Africa. They were part of a group of 74 Indonesians who had been arrested for not possessing the necessary documents. After their arrest, they had been detained in an immigration center for over two months in Cape Town.

Eventually, the International Organization for Migration and the South African government repatriated them to Indonesia, where SBMI began pursuing their cases in Indonesia as victims of trafficking.

Like the women’s discussions above, the details of the former migrant men’s experiences demonstrate that trafficking-like practices can be concealed within regular migration practices. According to a report by SBMI, all 74 of these Indonesian men possessed official documents from the Indonesian government that identified them as Overseas Migrant Workers (i.e. the KTKLN).

Some men told me that they had been told that they would work in construction. Their sleeping and eating hours at sea were highly restricted. There was little to no proper medication for sicknesses. Clean water and food were scarce, and they were not paid their salaries. They had no means to communicate their distress beyond the ship’s crew and captain. They were effectively held captive on board, and recalled a fellow crew member who committed suicide by jumping off the ship in desperation.

SBMI and the Indonesian government acknowledge that such cases constituting the “trafficking” of men into illegal fishing industries are increasingly common. Yet, their stories seldom seem to garner the same kind of sympathy, media attention, or moral outrage as stories of “sex trafficking.” Why is this so?

This is likely due to how “sex trafficking” tropes reinforce gendered assumptions that women are vulnerable and require protection, compared to men who “should” be more physically and emotionally prepared to deal with harsh labour conditions. Instead, as these vignettes have shown, Indonesian men and women experience similar risks and vulnerabilities in migrating abroad, where aspects of migration and work can be both voluntary and forced.

Beyond trafficking

What is life like after “rescue” and return? Experiences vary. While some men returned to their families and places of origin, others chose to stay in the shelter. The latter group preferred to stay in Jakarta to fight the legal battle against recruitment companies in order to achieve justice and financial compensation.

For several men and women I met during my research, family conflict and even abuse were reasons for their migration attempts. After forced repatriation and “rescue” missions, returning to their places of birth and families was simply not an option for many. Partly due to the shame of returning home empty-handed, or outward rejection from family members, many such “trafficked” victims tend to migrate again in search of eventual success and social acceptance.

News reports about “trafficking” often ignore the agency, persistence, and creativity of migrants themselves in navigating migration bureaucracy and weak labour laws. Anti-trafficking campaigns explicitly focus on punishing the criminals—the human smugglers. But is it unrealistic to free the world of migrant brokers, who arguably have been the norm rather than the exception in the contemporary history of human migration?

Naming and identifying with trafficking can be used by NGOs, researchers, and migrants themselves to variously gain public attention, and acquire funding and compensation. Yet, in practice, it is difficult and futile to definitively distinguish between what is and is not a case of trafficking. Doing so can be a bureaucratic and legal exercise in rendering some forms of human exploitation “worse” than others or even relatively acceptable.

As Johan Lindquist once asked, in the contemporary media landscape, how can we talk about precarious labour and the over-regulation of migration without invoking the concept of trafficking?

About the Author

Carol Chan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Interdisciplinary Program of Migration Studies, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile. Findings from her research in Central Java have also been published with Global Networks, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, and Mobilities. Versions of the articles are available here.


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