The Super Bowl Sex Trafficking Controversy

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The Super Bowl came and went almost a week ago, but not without the fanfare of governor speeches, police crackdowns, prevention and education campaigns related to what has become a staple concern in relation to America’s biggest game: sex trafficking. The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking produced a fact sheet summarizing anti-trafficking efforts in their state. (It is succinct, highly informative, and worth a read.)
You can read last year’s post on Trafficking and Sports for a brief overview of the issue, but what is known about the hype is basically twofold: 1) Sex trafficking in the United States is all too real. 2) Claims about inordinate spikes in sex trafficking in the latest Superbowl host city are unfounded.
Kate Mogulescu’s recent New York Times Op-Ed offers some perspective. Mogulescu is the supervising attorney for a Legal Aid Society project that represents nearly all of the individuals arrested on prostitution charges in New York City. Mogulescu details the trouble caused by drastic upticks in prostitution-related stings. The local legal system and organizations like the Legal Aid Society, she writes, become inundated with cases, even though a successful designation of victim-hood for a single trafficking survivor–and the subsequent matching of that survivor with the rehabilitative services to which she is entitled–can be extremely difficult:
I know firsthand the devastating consequences that aggressive arrest practices can have for both trafficked and nontrafficked people engaging in prostitution. Many, but not all, of our clients are, in fact, trafficked, and many more have survived an extensive amount of brutality, violence and trauma. Turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance.
As a colleague said recently, perhaps the awareness raised by the annual tradition of Super Bowl sex-trafficking hype (#1 on a list of six major “Super Bowl myths” that TIME Sports investigated at the end of January) will be ultimately positive for victims and their advocates. By now, the average American may say that they have heard of trafficking. Though their current understanding of this incredibly complex issue may be limited at best, there is room for growth. Future Super Bowls may bring more sophisticated media campaigns. Police forces might be trained in more effective anti-trafficking tactics. Public expectations of what trafficking prevention looks like may change.
In the fact sheet referred to above, the New Jersey Coalition addresses “those who downplay concern about Super Bowl” directly, noting that the event is
… an opportunity to educate the community.  People will stop and listen if you mention Super Bowl but not necessarily if you just talk about Human Trafficking…
They continue:
Raising human trafficking awareness is not a one time, one event, cause. Rather, promoting Human Trafficking awareness, especially during a national event such as the Super Bowl, allows for wide-spread community attentiveness to the issue. The problem of Human Trafficking in New Jersey will not end with the Super Bowl.  It is the hope that the NJ Coalition’s awareness campaign will help to prevent Human Trafficking in New Jersey and when it does occur, to reach out to victims, providing them with aid and resources.
Indeed, Governor Christ Christie signed one of the nation’s newest anti-human trafficking laws into effect in New Jersey last summer and has made trafficking prevention a “priority” in the state. New York City established a Special Circuit Court to deal with trafficking cases. A couple of years back, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl, Indiana passed their own anti-trafficking law and the Attorney General’s anti-trafficking task force is (still) fully operational today. None of these, it might be argued, would have been accomplished without the Super Bowl as impetus. But Mogulescu’s closing paragraphs are not so forgiving:
The annual oversimplification of the issue, in which we conflate all prostitution with trafficking, and then imply that arrest equals solution, does a disservice to year-round efforts to genuinely assist survivors of trafficking — with emergency housing, medical care and other crucial services.
Remove the guise of “preventing” human trafficking, and we are left with a cautionary tale of how efforts to clean up the town for a media event rely on criminalizing people, with long-lasting implications for those who are then trapped in the criminal justice system. If we continue to perpetuate fallacies like the Super Bowl sex-trafficking phenomenon, we will continue to perpetuate the harm caused by prostitution arrests in the name of helping victims.
We must judge Super Bowl anti-sex trafficking efforts not by the number of arrests accomplished by a host city, but by that city’s ability to assist trafficking survivors affected by those arrests. Future host cities should use the Super Bowl as an impetus for sustained change, and commit to longer-term and coordinated efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking, sex-related and not. First and foremost, they should ensure that their efforts are survivor-centered.

The “Great Plains Oil Rush” and the Rising Demand for Sex

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Last week, NPR released a series of radio pieces connected to the so-called Great Plains Oil Rush, or, if you’d prefer, a “modern-day Gold Rush in motion.” Most of us have heard something about the newly-bustling oil fields of eastern North Dakota, where sleepy rural towns have been transformed by sky-rocketing populations and traffic jams.
This “new” rough-and-tumble frontier, much like historical iterations, is predominantly populated by men: single, lonely men living in “man camps,” trailers and temporary row housing sponsored by oil companies. According to a February 1 installment of the NPR series, Booming Oil Fields May Be Giving Sex Trafficking A Boost, it is this demographic that an allegedly increasing number of sex workers–and sex traffickers–are looking to capitalize on.
In the words of one long-time resident of Williston, North Dakota, “If you’re looking for it [paid sex], you can find it; it’s there. You know, there’s women looking to make money, too.” But in North Dakota and Montana, as elsewhere, it is difficult for law enforcement and advocates alike to differentiate the “professional” sex workers from those forced into the trade by traffickers. In the United States, it is easiest to do so using the age of consent, currenty 18 years in North Dakota and 16 years in neighboring Montana. Young women or men found to be working in the sex trade may be considered trafficking victims by default  though, in practice, it takes knowledgeable local authorities and a successful application of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act plus relevant state and local laws to connect an individual “victim” with the services to which they are entitled. Women and men above the age of consent, on the other hand, are usually jailed or fined as perpetrators of illegal sex work.
See the whole Oil Rush story here (also hyperlinked above).

Forced Labor and the Sochi Olympics II

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Two weeks ago we featured an extended post on Sochi, where a combination of corporate and government abuse of construction workers–particularly those hailing from outside Russia–has marred the run-up to the Olympic Winter Games.
Since then, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty released an article on the exploitation and subsequent deportation of Serbs working in Sochi, a case that we also covered here. The RFE/RL piece further emphasizes the very blurry lines between Sochi-based construction contractors, Russia’s Federal Migration Service, and other unidentifiable groups who worked together to accomplish combinations of the following:
1) Bring foreign workers, from Southeastern Europe, Turkey, and (much more typically) from former Soviet Central Asia, albeit without work permit.
2) Facilitate trips across the Russia-Georgia border (or, if you like, the Russia-Abkhazia border, as the former recognizes the latter as an independent nation) to provide a semblance of legality, ie, renewed passport stamps.
3) Ensure workers’ ultimate arrest and expulsion by Russian authorities, often for lack of work permits or papers, and usually before said workers have been fully or even partially compensated for months of labor performed.
According to REF/RL, the Serbian Embassy recently arranged an emergency flight to evacuate 123 Serbian and Bosnia-Herzegovinian citizens after they were detained by migration authorities, and on January 23, Serbian police arrested Serbian national Dusan Kukic, the owner of a Cacak-based recruiting firm that arranged work for Serbs in Sochi. The fate of many thousands of Central Asian and other laborers remains less clear. An (English language) web search identified the February 2013 Human Rights Watch Report on labor exploitation at Sochi and few other sources.
Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), an organization working to raise worldwide awareness of labor abuses in Sochi, Brazil (in the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup football tournament) and Qatar (set to host the World Cup 2022), has published an official condemnation of the treatment of Sochi workers. BWI addresses both the Russian government and the International Olympics Committee, criticizing the subjection of workers to withheld pay and unsafe living and working conditions. (BWI estimates that 60 workers have died building Olympic venues in Sochi, while the Russian government’s official statistics are about half that).
BWI is worried about a Sochi “repeat” across the 11 Russian cities slated to host World Cup matches in 2018 (yes, that’s right, new event, same Russia). A Mother Jones article from October connected the dots between Russia, Brazil, and Qatar, and I’ve also written on the subject. It is now more apparent than ever that when it comes to major international sporting events, labor exploitation is just one of many human rights-related concerns that should raise eyebrows among athletes and fans alike.
(Thanks to Tos Añonuevo, BWI Education Secretary, for the link above.)

NO SWEAT! at IU

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Student group No Sweat! wants to end Indiana University’s dependence on apparel produced by sweat-shop labor. Events like last October’s “Check your Tags” Awareness Day (link this to the IDS article) raise awareness about international labor abuses and highlight the direct connection between students and the workers who have produced their clothing. Group members also educate university administrators about apparel companies and advocate for a university-wide switch to fairer, more sustainable apparel. No Sweat! is an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

“Nothing was like we agreed earlier”: Forced Labor and the Sochi Olympic Games

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If the Olympic Games have stood historically for warm and fuzzy shared values among diverse nations and peoples, they are also increasingly illustrative of much darker global realities—corruption and unbridled political power, the ebb and flow of clean and dirty capital, and the supply chains of international human trafficking.

Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), which advocates for the rights of construction workers around the world, has world-class sporting events on their radar. They lead a project called Campanha pelo Trabalho Decente (“Campaign for Decent Work”), which seeks to improve labor conditions in 2014 World Cup host country Brazil and occasionally denounces instances of worker exploitation and “trafficking.” They are already gearing up for the 2022 World Cup to be hosted by Qatar, lobbying FIFA  to protect stadium construction workers in a region of the world where discrimination against guest workers is enshrined in national laws.

But BWI’s latest news coverage includes a story on Serbian construction workers, part of a force of tens of thousands of foreign laborers flown, trained, and trucked into southern Russia to build the groundwork for next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Tens of workers have contacted the Serbian chapter of BWI since returning to Serbia from stints as guest workers in Sochi. They allege that major Russian construction corportation, Novi Gorod (“New City”), practiced what amounts to trafficking by denying workers the legal documents required by guest workers, subjecting them to perpetually poor living conditions, paying only part of worker-earned salaries or, in some cases, none at all. While dangerous working conditions have led to workers’ deaths on-site, strikes calling for improved safety are forbidden upon threat, and workers wishing to return home early are not released from their contracts.

ASTRA, an anti-trafficking coalition dedicated to eradicating trafficking and related violence in Southeast Europe, relays direct testimony  from several of these returned workers.

“We were given the airplane tickets and were very optimistic upon our departure. But everything went wrong as soon as we arrived to Sochi. They took away our passports at once and we were given the photocopy which was supposed to be used only for moving around in the town. Six of us were accommodated in small rooms; there were no signs of TV sets and refrigerators which were promised earlier. We worked 12 hours a day, except on Sundays when we used to work until lunchtime,” relays one individual.

“I lost my job and found the advertisement by chance. Everything seemed reliable and only in Sochi I realized that this mediator was an ordinary crook. Of course, nothing was like we agreed earlier. Since January 2010 the company “Novi Gorod” for which we have been working, started to be late with payments and by December they owed an average of eight monthly salaries to each worker. They would only pay small advance payments and we never even got a medical insurance,” says another.

These classic tales of deception (the “fraud” in the U.S. definition of trafficking as “force, fraud, or coercion”) will sound familiar to trafficking survivors around the world, whether male or female, young or old, well-educated or illiterate, Serbian or Nigerian, working in construction, housekeeping, or the sex industry. An ASTRA representative relays that in Sochi, as elsewhere, allegations against corporations like Novi Gorod are most often traced to sub-contractors, much smaller companies that are slipperier, more difficult to hold accountable or even to track down for comment. Many have been founded by Serbian nationals, individuals with the ties to recruit in their home country and who must work closely with local officials and mafia to maintain their “privilege” of doing business.

One Dutch reporter- and filmmaker-team has done the kind of long-term observation and investigative reporting that can shed more light on such nuances. Rob Hornstra and Arnold Van Brugen covered the fascinating pre-Olympics saga for a period of five years. They begin their story in 2007, when Russia won their bid to host the 2014 Games in what was then a rustic seaside holiday town lacking a single Olympics- appropriate structure—arena, hotel, road, or otherwise. Hornstra and Van Brugen’s Sochi Project, a film showcasing the corruption and human rights violations the team documented, has been making the documentary film festival rounds since last fall and includes some focus on the plight of foreign guest workers in particular. (See also Andrea Rossini’s review for the Italian Balkan and Caucasus Observatory.) Human Rights Watch has also provided extensive, long-term coverage of all manner of abuses related to the Sochi Games, including the trafficking of migrant workers .

The U.S. Department of State’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released in June, quoted a 2012 speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he condemned human trafficking—for the first time, at least publicly—calling for the prosecution of those “who organize flows of illegal immigrants, hire people without work permits and use them as slaves” (U.S. Department of State, 2013). High-level officials in the Putin administration have also spoken out in the lead-up to the Sochi Games. And just two weeks ago on January 10, 2014, Russian officials released their estimates of the total wages stolen from Sochi workers—amounting  and vowed to compensate them. Human Rights Watch Russia’s Jane Buchanan urges the fulfillment of this promise but notes that many workers have already been expelled to make way for Olympic competitors and fans. She wonders what will happen to workers who lack documentation like work permits, visas, and employee contracts to support their claims.

The plight of Sochi workers seems destined to fade from public view soon, but it must be noted that Sochi is not necessarily the worst of Russia’s problems. Serbians, North Koreans, Central Asians, and even Russian nationals from the Caucasus region experience abuses across the country, from police harassment and detainment in Moscow to forced labor and isolation in Siberian logging camps. And with more world sporting events—including the 2018 World Cup in Russia—on the horizon, worker exploitation must be met with continued scrutiny, not just by human and labor rights groups but by countries who send their athletes and spectators to compete.

The Global Slavery Index 2013

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Walk Free Foundation has published the Global Slavery Index for 2013. It ranks 162 countries according to the number of individuals trafficked, married as children, and smuggled in and out of the country. Mauritania, Haiti, and Pakistan performed worst in the index, while three countries–the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Iceland–tied for the best performance this year.

FBI Trafficking Arrests Commendable, But Not Sufficient

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U.S.-based child sex trafficking made the news this week following a multi-state FBI sting (full story can be found here). However, Dr. David Finkelhor, an expert on child exploitation at the University of New Hampshire, says that the sting operation may be too little, too late. Country-wide arrests may make good headlines, but according to Finkelhor, “…it is only through a multidisciplinary comprehensive mobilization of dedicated child welfare, social service, mental health, drug rehabilitation, educational systems — working together with law enforcement — that we will find a solution to young people being sold or selling sex for money and survival.”

Finkelhor’s July 31 CNN Opinion piece includes some surprising facts about child sex trafficking in the U.S., including the high number of boys in the sex trade and the ways that technology (internet, cell phones) allows both boys and girls to engage in the trade without the involvement of a pimp.

Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia

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A Kenyan domestic worker who escaped her Saudi “employers” in Irvine, California made the news today, but before stepping onto U.S. soil she was just one of an estimated one million foreign workers employed in domestic work in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States, draws large numbers of migrants from nearby East Africa and South Asia. Those migrants often find themselves unprotected by local laws and exploited by the powerful elites for whom they work.

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