Not for sale

Human trafficking is a $30bn a year global business. Now an influential group of women - politicians

A disturbing advert is currently running on Ukrainian television. It shows a girl in a blond wig - not unlike the one Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman - arriving on an airport conveyor belt, naked inside a cardboard box.

Her hand is stamped with a bar code. "Believe in your own strength. Don't take risks. Human beings are not goods," intones the voice-over.

The ad's soundtrack, "Not for Sale", is by Ruslana, one of the biggest names in post-Soviet pop music, Ukraine's winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest and a former MP. In the song, she urges Ukrainian girls to be suspicious of anyone offering them highly paid work abroad.

Now Ruslana's anti-trafficking message is going global. The Slavic songstress has attached herself to a women-only international task force: the Women Leaders' Council, a group made up of political figures, diplomats, business leaders, campaigners and celebrities from all over the world. On 3 June Suzanne Mubarak, first lady of Egypt, will represent the group at the UN General Assembly, where she will give an address on human trafficking.

This is a milestone: it is rare for anyone other than heads of state to speak to the assembly.

The women-only campaigning group came to prominence at a peculiar event in Vienna in February where Ruslana's booming soundtrack got its first international airing. Dressed in a red-and-black leather jumpsuit, waist-length hair flying, Ruslana launched into a spirited rendition in front of a select, enthusiastic audience of 30 of the world's most influential women.

This was the newly appointed Women Leaders' Council. They include the British actresses Julia Ormond and Emma Thompson, a two-times Oscar winner, and Barbara Prammer, president of Austria's lower house of parliament. Their common interest? "Human trafficking: a crime that shames us all", as the poster backdrop to Ruslana's performance put it. Her thumping, Anastacia-style ballad has now been adopted as the UN's anti-trafficking anthem.

The Vienna forum was hosted under the auspices of the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.Gift) and was designed to promote the efforts of the new women's council. Their leader is Baroness Goudie, the philanthropic powerhouse, member of the House of Lords and former campaign manager to Roy Hattersley, a formidable and indefatigable woman with an impressive track record on everything from sustainable peace in Northern Ireland to work as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund UK.

So why does human trafficking need an all-woman action committee of actresses, politicians and first ladies? "Men are involved," says Baroness Goudie, "but increasingly women are having to take the lead on human trafficking by taking this to Davos and the United Nations." It is not uniquely a women's issue, she explains, but there are parallels with the fight against domestic violence or bullying in the workplace. Arguably, women's voices can campaign most effectively on the matter - not least because the majority of those trafficked are female.

"Gender discrimination plays a role," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In some countries, the life of a woman or girl is not worth as much as the life of a man or boy, so females are more vulnerable to traffickers. The aims of the Women Leaders' Council are ambitious: to co-ordinate action across the globe, facilitate access to resources and reduce the stigma for victims.

The council's roll-call reads like a rather odd Who's Who of internationally influential women. There's Helen Bamber (a founding member of Amnesty International and founder of the Helen Bamber Foundation, the human rights charity, where Emma Thompson is also on the board), Jolanta Kwasniewski (the former first lady of Poland), Katie Ford (former chief executive of Ford Models), Renuka Chowdhury (India's minister for women and child development), Dr Saisuree Chutikul (a former cabinet minister of Thailand). The women's common goal is to establish an international code of "honourable and safe trafficking".

One of their biggest problems is that many traffickers masquerade as legitimate employment agencies. Victims willingly sign up to work abroad (often escaping desperate circumstances), only to find that a different fate awaits them. To increase prosecutions, the campaigners want to speed up cross-border collaboration. But in Europe alone, only 17 countries have signed and ratified the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Another 21 states (including the UK) have signed but have yet to ratify. Because trafficking is a cross-border business, it is vital to close these legal loopholes internationally. The job of these women is to push trafficking to the top of the agenda - and cut all the red tape.

It is a seemingly impossible undertaking, but Goudie is the figurehead for an increasingly vocal and influential organisation. The Women Leaders' Council's war against trafficking is already highly visible.

Along with Ruslana, the singer Ricky Martin has been co-opted into the campaign (although obviously, being a man, he can't join the council). Emma Thompson, the most high-profile council member, has reported on trafficking for Time, toured extensively with Journey, an anti-trafficking art installation, and appeared in a Body Shop video. Thompson describes the plight of the trafficked as "the hidden side of globalisation: a sickening business worth more than $30bn a year". (The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are roughly 2.5 million victims at any one time.) The new UN women's group hopes to broaden understanding of what human trafficking is - and to prick our global conscience by popularising the idea that human trafficking is a form of "modern slavery". Many are forced into slave labour, sometimes in domestic service or in factories, says Baroness Goudie. "Everybody thinks that human trafficking is just about women coming to the UK from Moldova or Albania via Amsterdam and brought into brothels," she notes. The problem is much broader: there are men forced to work in mines, on plantations or in sweatshops, as well as children coerced into becoming soldiers. This is no longer just about the sex industry.

Instead, human trafficking is increasingly a commercial problem, its proliferation encouraged by the speed of globalisation. Moving the focus away from the sex industry, UN.Gift is working on a number of initiatives to tackle human trafficking in different contexts: the use of children in armed conflicts in West and Central Africa, exploring the "power of the pulpit" to inform and warn about trafficking in faith-based communities, such as in South Africa, encouraging cross-national co-operation in the tourism industry in south-east Asia (where trafficked prostitution is a huge problem), working with "post-conflict" countries in the Horn of Africa where, amid the lawlessness and chaos postwar, trafficking often thrives, as it is easy to displace people without anyone noticing or being able to report it to the authorities.

There is also an increasing push to merge issues. Improved cross-border police co-operation, the rise of environmentally-aware consumerism and fair trade should all, in theory, work towards eliminating human trafficking. Likewise, a clampdown on fake designer goods would have a knock-on effect: many of the counterfeit products are made by displaced workers. Emma Thompson points out that we are all at risk of buying goods made by trafficked workers: "If we explain to our own kids how children are forced to work as slaves on cocoa plantations, for example, they will press us to buy Fairtrade chocolate." The identification of human trafficking as a consumer issue could be the key to awakening public outrage.

Baroness Goudie uses a chilling phrase that sums up the mentality behind human trafficking: "A drug can only be used once; a person can be used many times." In many countries it is still one of the crimes most difficult to detect and punish, making it less liable to prosecution than drug trafficking.

The 30-strong women’s council is in regular contact and hopes to meet as a group after Suzanne Mubarak’s UN address. Meanwhile, members are agitating in the private sector: they take the view that the issue needs glamour, celebrity and high-profile campaigning to keep up the pressure.

Melanne Verveer, a former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and member of the women’s council, puts it this way: “We need to elevate the race against human trafficking to the Grand Prix level, with Formula One-quality vehicles, sponsors and fuel. We simply can’t stay in the slow lane for another ten years.”

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain