Talking Trafficking With Sex Worker and LGBTQ Voices From Jamaica

By Julia O’Connell Davidson

SWAJ Director Miriam Haughton

With funding from the British Academy under its “Tackling slavery, human trafficking and child labour in modern business” programme, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor (University of Leicester), Katie Cruz (University of Bristol) and I have been involved in research on exploitation and violence in sex work and other forms of tourism-related labour in Jamaica over the past year.

We were privileged and honoured to be able to work on this project with the Sex Work Alliance of Jamaica (SWAJ), a very grassroots NGO run by and for sex workers, and when we had the opportunity to launch and showcase our project at two events at the British Academy last week (one titled “Talking Trafficking With Sex Worker and LGBTQ Voices From Jamaica”), we invited members of the SWAJ team to join us.In the end, however, only the Director, Miriam Haughton, was able to come to the UK. The experience of our other partners speaks volumes about the way in which contemporary talk of “modern slavery” works to deflect attention from the afterlives of actual, transatlantic slavery and colonialism.

The Research

Since 2005, United States’ Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports have consistently portrayed Jamaica as having a rampant problem with “child sex tourism” and “sex trafficking” (both of which are now dubbed “modern slavery” by some NGOs and politicians). Indeed, TIP reports and the media coverage they prompt give the impression that “sex trafficking” in general and “child sex trafficking” in particular are the most serious problems associated with commercial sex in Jamaica. They also suggest that the Jamaican Government urgently needs to toughen up its action against the criminals involved. To the extent that the tourism industry is seen to have a role in combatting this type of “modern slavery”, it is largely imagined as supporting efforts at crime control by training staff to “spot the signs of trafficking” and report it to the authorities. Our research asked, among other things, what adult sex workers, especially those who started to sell sex when aged below 18, have to say about the problems facing those who sell sex in Jamaica, and whether they see tougher law and law enforcement against trafficking as the solution to these problems.

We conducted research with sex workers and with people who work in tourism and in the informal tourism economy. Though data analysis is not yet complete, a key finding so far is that although our sex worker participants turned to sex work for economic reasons, as opposed to being forced into it by any third party, they nonetheless routinely experience violence (often very serious violence), robbery, and exploitation. In fact, data from our interviews and a survey of 70 sex workers suggests that violence is the norm, not the exception, for sex workers in Jamaica. The perpetrators are not criminals trafficking people into the sex trade, however. They are largely customers, members of the public, and crucially, police officers, who assault people because they are sex workers.

Our interviewees state that their vulnerability to such high levels of violence is a direct result of the laws that criminalise sex work, and the stigma that attaches to it. In the case of male and trans sex workers, a double stigmatisation and criminalisation operates, since buggery remains a criminal offense in Jamaica and there is a great deal of anti-gay prejudice. Criminalisation and stigmatisation mean that when people are raped, beaten, cheated or robbed, they cannot turn to the police for protection or justice (especially when it is a police officer who victimizes them). Understandably, then, far from being eager to see more criminalisation in the guise of anti-trafficking, most of our sex worker interviewees and survey respondents want to see the decriminalisation of prostitution and of homosexuality in Jamaica. With regards to children, our respondents agree that persons under 18 should not be working in the sex industry, but again argue that criminalisation is not the answer. In fact, even referral to child protection services may not help, given that abuse and violence in children’s homes is a serious problem.

Above all, the sex workers and tourism workers we interviewed argued that whether below and above the age of 18, what ordinary Jamaicans really need are policies that create economic and educational opportunities and inclusion, instead of exclusion and criminalisation.

Exclusion, Criminalisation and Slavery

If we want to make the analytical link between slavery on the one hand, and poor working conditions, exploitation and violence today on the other, we need to remember that through the history of transatlantic slavery, freedom and slavery were racialised. Freedom was coded as white; only those of white European descent were seen as fit for the rights and freedoms of citizenship. Those racialised as black were imagined as too uncivilised and too brutish for freedom. They lacked honour, their word could not be trusted, they needed Masters to control and speak for them. This ideology did not end when slavery was abolished.

In the Caribbean as well as the US following abolition, formerly enslaved persons were regarded as a dangerous, threatening, “masterless” class of person, and the criminal law was increasingly used to discipline and control them. Their efforts to live independently were a particular focus of control and punishment. This fostered an association between blackness and criminality and an intensification of all the dehumanising stereotypes that had been used to justify slavery, which is to say, racist stereotypes about black people as lazy, feckless, untrustworthy, dishonourable, cheats, thieves and liars.

Those stereotypes continue to operate in Jamaica today, especially in relation to individuals who are unable to access the education and jobs that confer “respectability” and belonging. This is a significant portion of the population, because far from having been compensated for the ravages caused by centuries of colonisation and slavery, Jamaica has been further damaged by external interventions in the form of international debt and the austerity packages tied to loans. In fact, the Jamaican Government is compelled to spend more on international debt repayments than on education and welfare combined, which means large numbers of ordinary Jamaicans are unable to secure the basic education required even to get low paid, precarious work in tourism.

The tourism industry extends and deepens those lines of exclusion. The All Inclusive model, for instance, encloses tourists behind fences and razor wire and security systems, significantly reducing opportunities for ordinary Jamaicans to independently make a living on the beach by selling jewellery, tours, drinks, fruit and so on, to tourists. Indeed, if a local beach seller so much as sits on a sun lounger next to a tourist to show her their wares, hotel security guards or tourist police officers will come and chase the local off. Tourists enjoy the rights and freedoms normally associated with citizenship, Jamaicans (at least those who are poor) do not. They are regarded with suspicion and hostility, policed as potential threats. And though they often have many ingenious and creative ideas for small businesses and independent entrepreneurship, they are shut out from opportunities to realise their projects. They cannot secure loans to start businesses, and often cannot even get a bank account, again because those who are poor and unemployed are assumed to be scammers and scoundrels.

This returns me to our partners from SWAJ, who paid a large amount of money to apply for visas to enter the UK to attend our launch events. They took with them to their visa interviews letters of invitation from the British Academy stating the purpose of their visit to the UK, and noting that the visit would be fully funded. We booked their flights and their hotel accommodation, and sent them proof of this to take to their visa interview. But despite all this evidence, UK Visas and Immigration refused them visas and implicitly accused them of being liars, cheats and criminals. Here is an extract from one refusal letter:

I am not satisfied that you are a genuine visitor or that you have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable costs in relation to your visit without working or accessing public funds… I am not satisfied as to your intentions in wishing to travel to the UK… I am not satisfied that you genuinely intend a short visit only… and that you will leave the UK at the end of the visit.

How dare UKVI charge money for a service they don’t provide and then add a string of insults like this to the injury? The answer links closely to our research findings. They dare because Jamaicans (at least Jamaicans who do not belong to a wealthy elite) are still not really regarded as the proper subjects of freedom, and so are still not valued as persons of honour.

Lyndsey Stonebridge has recently argued that rather than becoming subjects of human rights law in the post-World War II era, as European refugees did, the displaced and dispossessed peoples of the global south became objects of humanitarian attention, separate and unequal from the “international community” that claims to act on their behalf. One consequence of this is that European and North American researchers and experts can freely roam the globe, while the mobility of their counterparts in the global south continues to be pathologized and heavily restricted. Jamaicans can contribute to research on “modern slavery”, but are not guaranteed a place alongside British academics and policy makers at the table where that research is disseminated and policy is discussed. Emancipation from slavery was not, and apparently still is not, the same thing as freedom and equality.

Decriminalisation and Beyond

Criminalisation and marginalisation are social forces that have been critical to the application of colonial and post-colonial state power. In this respect, Jamaicans like our partners at SWAJ who are fighting for the decriminalisation of consensual acts of same-sex intimacy and of sex work are part of a wider and on-going struggle both to undo colonialism and transform oppressive practices adopted or maintained by post-independence states. That struggle is hindered, not helped, by the dominant global north discourse on “trafficking and modern slavery” and its overwhelming preoccupation with criminal law and law enforcement in global south countries like Jamaica. Policy attention needs to shift to the factors that actually leave our research partners and participants vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Rather than talking “trafficking”, we need to be talking about matters such as: tackling marginalisation and criminalisation; eliminating international debt; combatting tax evasion and avoidance by big businesses; and making reparations for the historical wrongs of slavery and colonialism – one preliminary element of which in the UK would be the complete removal of all immigration controls on people from former British colonies.

Julia O’Connell Davidson, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor and Miriam Haughton

Julia O’Connell Davidson is Professor in Social Research in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. She is currently working on two projects linked to MMB – Modern Marronage and Re-visiting Child Sex Tourism, Re-thinking Business Responses.

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