Human trafficking

When I began teaching “Cities in a Global Society” at SF State in 2012, there was no reading on human trafficking in the syllabus. But this is an issue of intense concern both to me and to many students. By 2013, there were public service announcements in Muni buses about human trafficking; and about 1/3 of the students in my course wanted to focus their research papers on the issue. However, I have yet to find a really strong article that explains the relationship between human trafficking and urbanism. So I am creating this page as a place to discuss human trafficking, and to post readings as we find them.

Human trafficking reveals a lot about the global political-economic order. To be blunt, it is slavery. However, the process works differently than the chattel slavery of the 1700s and 1800s, because human trafficking is done covertly. And the key instrument of coercion is immigration-restrictions in rich countries. If a trafficked person gets caught, they are likely to be deported back to a home country in disgrace and face miserable conditions.

However, both 21st century trafficking and 18th/19th century slavery have important similarities. In both cases, capitalist entrepreneurs need people to labor, but the capitalists are not willing to pay these workers. In some way, capitalists (who are also human) must rationalize this exploitation. In one way or another, these owners stop seeing their slaves as human beings. ‘Labor’ in these cases is purely commodified; the work is abstracted away from the human bodies and souls that must perform it. In writing, “labor” sounds tame. The fact that humans are treated like other forms of capital equipment (tractors, photocopiers) sounds disjointed, almost surreal. But in practice, the only way to treat humans as commodities is through repeated, continuous, intense violence.

There are many ways to research this issue, and many aspects that can and should be written about. Here are a few sources to start from:

I begin with the Human Trafficking website. In general, human trafficking is a concern of human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, migration organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and labor organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO). Domestic immigration and local police forces also often get involved in cases of human trafficking; traffickers often exploit the inability of this range of agencies to coordinate local, national, and international laws and procedures.

On the password-protected page I will post journal articles on human trafficking.

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