Remember victims of forced labour in trafficking law

Remember victims of forced labour in trafficking law
Protesters against labour trafficking and modern-day slavery outside the UN in New York in September. A third of those trafficked are for labour purposes, according to an International Labour Organisation report.

According to the United Nations 2012 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), "over 27 million people throughout the world are enslaved through trafficking".

While the UN equates trafficking with slavery, the term "trafficking" conjures up something else in the popular imagination: commercial sex.

That is, popular thinking tends to conflate trafficking with prostitution, where the victim is imagined to be a Third World woman or child in abject poverty taken across borders and forced into selling sex. Even the UN Palermo Protocol on human trafficking mentions women and children.

Thus, media coverage tends to be focused on "sex slaves" who should be "rescued and restored".

As a result, both state and civil society efforts to end trafficking tend to focus on sexual victimhood and fighting prostitution.

In fact, a third of those trafficked are for labour purposes, according to a 2007 International Labour Organisation report.

So trafficking involves not just sex trafficking but labour trafficking as well. On the one hand, not all trafficking victims are prostitutes, while not all prostitutes have been trafficked. On the other hand, like victims of sexual trafficking, those of labour trafficking also tend to be abused, physically and/or sexually.

Law enforcement is not uninfluenced by this mindset either.

This is suggested by figures released by the United States (US) own TIP annual report that Singapore authorities "receiving 350 cases of potential labour trafficking...could only substantiate two such cases in 2012". One was convicted, jailed for six weeks and fined, while the other "was not prosecuted" but let off "with a stern warning".

By contrast, last year, some 21 persons received jail sentences from nine weeks to four months "for the commercial sexual exploitation of children". Since children cannot give consent, such exploitation is defined as trafficking.

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