The Missing Word

Image by Stuart Miles, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Stuart Miles, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

There’s something missing from this story in Smithsonian magazine:

…since 2012, about 900 workers have died while working on infrastructure in Qatar, in a building boom anticipating the World Cup…the Guardian reported that over 400 Nepalese migrant workers had already died at building sites.  Between 2010 and 2012 more than 700 workers from India lost their lives working on construction sites in Qatar, too.  A report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) says that if conditions don’t get any better, by the time the World Cup kicks off, at least 4,000 migrant workers will have died on the jobWorkers described forced labour in 50C (122F) heat, employers who retain salaries for several months and passports making it impossible for them to leave and being denied free drinking water.  The investigation found sickness is endemic among workers living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions and hunger has been reported…According to the ITUC, there are already 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar, and about a million more will probably pour into the country to help with construction. These are essentially slaves…

So we’ve got migrant workers being imported to do jobs locals don’t want, for employers who hold their passports, pay them too little and force them to live in poor conditions…hmm, what’s the missing bit?  Perhaps if we look at another recent story which gave me a similar feeling, we’ll be able to figure it out:

African artists hired by a Korean museum have been laboring under conditions “similar to indentured servitude”…They…were promised salaries of…minimum wage…and comfortable accommodations; instead, they were…forced to live in cold, mice-ridden rooms…[and] their salaries barely covered the cost of three meals a day…Their contracts stipulated three performances per day, but they were often forced to do four to six…

No, I still can’t quite put my finger on it.  How about this one?

…in India’s handmade carpet sector…workers toil 10 to 12 hours a day for six to seven days a week [in buildings that are] “cramped, filthy, unbearably hot and humid, imperiled with stray electrical wires and rusty nails…and contaminated with grime and mold”…Workers were subjected to frequent beatings and abuse and…suffered from…long-term health issues because of the grueling nature of the work…The average adult worker was paid between 21 and 24 cents an hour, while children were paid less…

And it doesn’t just happen in Asia:

A company within Sweden’s home care services…mistreated migrant workers by making false promises about work conditions…Hassan…said that his official job offer stated that he would be employed full-time by…TPS Vårdteam…with a monthly wage of 26,500 kronor ($4,000)…”In the beginning I didn’t get any work at all…Then I had to work seven days a week….[for] only…8,000 kronor per month”…

It’s in the US as well:

…more than 150 Jamaican guest workers who clean luxury Florida hotels and condos walked off the job…They…borrowed to pay recruitment fees of $2,000 to $2,500, counting on promises of full-time work and good housing.  But…the cleaning company packed as many as 15 people into unfurnished two-bedroom apartments, for…as much as $5,000 a month.  Charges for rent and required extras like $70 for a T-shirt “uniform” reduced the workers’ net pay to subminimum levels, sometimes even zero, and…paychecks repeatedly bounced…Guest workers…are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too “difficult” for any reason…the employer can…deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas…

Maybe we can identify the absentee in this one involving McDonald’s:

…the visiting students each paid $3,000 or more…and were promised full-time employment; most received only a handful of hours a week…“Their employer is also their landlord,” said [an advocate]…“They’re earning sub-minimum wages, and then paying it back in rent” to share a room with up to seven co-workers…management required [them] to be on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to show up for work at thirty minutes’ notice…

I’m sure that by now, you’ve noticed what’s missing from all these stories: it’s the word “trafficking”.  In theory, “trafficking” supposedly means any worker recruited by fraud or coercion and held under exploitative conditions, but in reality the term is nearly always used to mean sex work or some other sex-related arrangement like surrogate motherhood or mail-order marriage.  When the employer is politically connected and the workers employed in providing entertainment, cheap goods or creature comforts for the bourgeois, you can be sure the word “trafficking” will not appear no matter how slavery-like the conditions nor how egregious the coercion.  But when sex is involved you can bet that workers’ agency will be denied, lurid details will be exaggerated, and employers will be demonized when they exist and fabricated when they don’t.  As I wrote in “Chauvinism”,

Nobody is concerned about immigrants doing awful work that middle-class people don’t want, so this is rarely labeled “trafficking” even when it clearly fits the standard definition; but because sex work offends both conservative Christian and radical feminist notions about “proper” female behavior, it is labeled “trafficking” even when it clearly involves neither travel nor coercion.

The saddest thing of all is that once the moral panic collapses and the public finds something else to obsess about rather than other people’s sex lives, the new fixation definitely won’t be the kind of evil described in the items above.  If people don’t even care about the exploitation of migrant workers in the midst of hysteria supposedly about that very subject, it hardly seems likely they’ll care once the topic becomes an obsolete fad.

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