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Exploitation is the rule, not the exception


Workers accept these jobs because they have no other choice but to sell their labour power to members of the owning class who will appropriate the surplus as their own profit. For that reason, even if they are waged workers rather than enslaved people, their labour cannot be reasonably described as freely offered: it is “not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.” In other words, economic vulnerability is the normal condition of workers who are recruited into work. Capital needs to exploit workers and most workers have no other choice but to be exploited.

Despite various efforts to generate clear criteria to define the exceptional nature of recruitment into trafficking, the boundaries between capitalist labour and criminal activity continually break down. What the Palermo Protocol portrays as exceptional ends up being a description of the conditions of the system itself.

The case of sex work

The porous border between everyday capitalist exploitation and exceptional criminal abuse is especially apparent when it comes to debates over sex work and trafficking. The case of trafficking into sexual labour exploitation, which the protocol singles out as an area of emphasis, reveals that the blurring of the boundary is not the result of sloppy thinking or writing by committee. Instead, it is a conscious strategy on the part of the feminist prostitution abolitionists who left an indelible mark on the document.

The conflation of sex trafficking and sex work is a key strategy of extremist abolitionist organisations. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, for example, insists that “the exploitation of prostitution and trafficking cannot be separated” and therefore equates the work of any form of prostitution to sexual violence and abuse. The protocol and the national anti-trafficking policies modelled on it have served as tools to reinvigorate the policing and prosecution of sex workers more broadly.

One clear example of this agenda in action is the SESTA/FOSTA bills passed by the US Congress and enacted into law in 2018. The law is intended to combat both prostitution and sex trafficking – the two are consistently linked in the text – by targeting online sites and platforms sex workers use to market their services and screen clients on the grounds that they could also be used by traffickers. The law jeopardises the safety and livelihood of the many sex workers using these tools as part and parcel of the effort to de-platform the small numbers of traffickers who might also use these sites. With assistance from all the sensationalised media stories about sex trafficking, the by now common conflation of sex work and sex trafficking has been a boon to sex work abolitionists in the US.

It is worth noting (although this point deserves a separate argument) that the expansive reach of human trafficking laws is also used as a weapon against migrants and migrant aid networks. Just as the law tends to cast all sex work as trafficking, so too migrant aid has become subject to prosecution as “trafficking in persons.” As a result, humanitarian projects, such as rescue missions in the Mediterranean to aid migrants in distress, have been criminalised and repeatedly charged under anti-trafficking laws.

The power of the exploited

It should be clear from the proceeding analysis that exploitation is a structural characteristic of capitalist society – not the exception but the norm – and is thus a much larger problem than presented by the protocol. As such it may seem that a solution will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to find. At this point another aspect of Marx’s concept of exploitation comes into view.

In contrast to standard notions of domination or repression, the Marxist approach to exploitation regards workers as much more than victims. Exploited workers must have a certain power, since if they were powerless and unproductive there would be no way to exploit them. This power of the exploited, which is currently harnessed in the relationship with the exploiters, has the potential to be deployed by the workers themselves. The potential of the exploited, in fact, must be explored not just in terms of economic class but also along all the hierarchies of power that we mentioned earlier. The exploited in all these cases are not victims (or, not only victims) but rather potential agents of power. Since exploitation is structural, not exceptional, and since those exploited are endowed with potential, organising them to act politically for themselves is not only possible but also necessary.


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