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The Dark Side of the Global Commute

June 14, 2007


Every wave of globalization has required a relatively free flow of people, resources, and capital. As the emotional debates over immigration in the U.S. Congress and beyond underscore, the most controversial of these flows is people. The flow of people is required to match jobs with laborers. With birth rates falling in the developed world and continuing to increase in much of the undeveloped world, an inevitable mismatch will occur between where jobs are available and where those needed to fill them are located. There are three basic solutions to this mismatch. First, people can physically move to where the jobs are. The challenge with this solution is that it often creates xenophobia, especially if the flow of people surpasses the availability of jobs. Second, the jobs can physically move to where the people are. The challenge with this solution is that some people end up losing jobs in places where the jobs used to be located. Finally, people and jobs can be virtually brought together using information technology. Even this solution has created some unhappiness. There is a fourth solution that doesn’t allow the movement of people — using machines to make up for a lack of skilled workers — but it only works in process oriented sectors and machines also displace workers.

Writing for the Washington Post, Nora Boustany discusses the dark side of this global commute — human trafficking [“Allies Cited for Human Trafficking,” 13 June 2007].

“The State Department yesterday added seven countries, including four Arab allies, to its list of worst offenders in failing to suppress human trafficking and forced labor, which it called ‘a modern day form of slavery.’ The 236-page annual survey, now in its seventh year, added Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar to its blacklist of worst offenders, along with Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Malaysia. Countries on the list are subject to sanctions until major reforms are introduced. The list already included Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. Laos, Belize, and Zimbabwe were dropped from the list this year. The world’s two most populous countries, China and India, were kept on an intermediate watch list, meaning their approach to trafficking is deemed deficient but not enough to face immediate U.S. sanctions.”

Human trafficking generally falls into two categories, forced labor and sex. For the most part, Arab countries are on the list because they employ large numbers of foreign laborers, who are often found living in squalid conditions. These foreign laborers run much of the infrastructure that keeps those countries operating. In their case, culture is the main culprit. Even though some of these countries have high indigenous unemployment, the jobs in which foreign labor is exploited are those considered beneath Arabs to work. Most of the rest of the countries are on the list because of the sex trade.

“The study documents efforts by foreign governments to prevent the trafficking of people for sexual exploitation and forced labor. It looks at whether the countries prosecute traffickers and try to protect the most vulnerable people, such as women and children. It sets up a three-tier evaluation system, with the worst cases ranked in tier three and subject to immediate sanctions such as the prohibition of grants or sale of security items. A grace period of several months is granted to countries in the second tier watch list to give them time to introduce reforms. The president is allowed to waive sanctions. The Arab countries received the bottom ranking in part because many of the foreign workers who keep their infrastructures running are mistreated. Sex trafficking from Balkan nations and former Soviet republics is also common in Arab countries where custom prohibits prostitution among local women.”

Boustany reports that not all human trafficking takes place across borders.

“The report says that 90 percent of India’s trafficking occurs inside the country, as opposed to across its national borders, and that girls as young as 13 are being forced into sexual slavery. [Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ)] said that ‘even the narrative in the report is contrary to the placement’ of India. He said he believed India was put on the watch list only so that the United States could avoid imposing penalties. He noted that in China, a strict one-child policy results in the aborting of female fetuses. By 2020, he said, 40 million men will not be able to find wives, ‘creating a huge magnet for trafficking.'”

The developed world doesn’t exactly have clean hands in all of this. Many of the customers who travel to some of these nations to take advantage of those forced into the sex trade come from the developed world. Not all the news was bad on this front. In addition to Laos, Belize, and Zimbabwe being dropped from the watch list, Taiwan was also dropped according to another article [“U.S. welcomes Taiwan moves to stop human trafficking,” Reuters, Washington Post, 13 June 2007]. The article notes:

“Taipei had faced the prospect of sanctions if it remained on the list, but over the past year the government had approved a broad plan to tackle trafficking, toughened visa rules and prosecuted more violators, the State Department said.”

But the report notes that Taiwan still has a long way to go.

“Half the 340,000 foreign workers in Taiwan are private servants or nurses not protected by labor laws, the report said. Some Chinese and Southeast Asian workers have entered the relatively well-off island by obtaining fake marriages or with the help of labor brokers who scam or mistreat migrants. Smuggling in prostitutes also remains a problem, the report added.”

It is not just laws that need to change in most of these places it’s the culture that fosters the practice. One of the benefits of globalization is that it brings the harsh light of international attention on conditions that permit human trafficking and worker exploitation. Although connectivity makes its easier for sexual predators to exploit victims, it also permits better enforcement and leaves fewer places for nefarious actors to hide. Tom Barnett’s webmaster Sean Meade pointed me to an interesting map about immigration. As Sean writes, “Nothing new or shocking here. Many trends Tom has noted before. But still some interesting facts on China, Russia, France, UAE, UK, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, and the US.” It’s worth a look and gives a quick overview of the global commute.

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