Awareness Is Not Enough
Siobhan McGrath, University of Durham, on Trafficking and 12 Years a Slave
You are a normal person, a good person even. Along with your partner, you are working to provide your children with a good standard of living. You are offered an opportunity for work, an opportunity which involves travel. Those making this offer seem nice (and they offer you compliments). You decide to accept their offer. Soon enough, however, you find that things are not as they seem. In fact, you have been sold. You try to protest your rights and your freedom, but you have been brought across a border - and it seems as if you have no rights on the other side. It takes years of hard work, involving severe abuse along the way, before you are able to find someone who helps you out of this situation and you can return home.
This is the plot of 12 Years a Slave - and yet it is strikingly similar to the story we hear about human trafficking today. I am not a cultural critic but I am concerned with the realities of labour exploitation experienced by migrants, and efforts to combat human trafficking. So this parallel intrigued me. The film is based on the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American in the North who was kidnapped to be sold into slavery in the South – and there were others like him, kidnapped in the same way. Interestingly however, according to an interview published in The Guardian (on 4 January 2014), Steve McQueen was already working on the idea for the story before discovering Northup’s autobiography (via a recommendation from his wife). McQueen and others involved in making the film may or may not have intended any parallels to contemporary stories of trafficking. But by dedicating his best picture Oscar to the nearly 21 million people suffering in contemporary ‘slavery,’ this link has now been firmly made in the public imagination.
That should give us hope, hope that greater efforts will be made to combat the phenomenon. Yet, reading the film as analogous to contemporary trafficking tells us that awareness is not enough. It is questionable whether equipping more people to recite a statistic measuring the scale of the phenomenon will make much difference in changing it. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in public and private initiatives to combat human trafficking, but these have, as Brysk and Choi-Fitzpatrick put it, ‘done little to reduce the incidence or harm of the phenomenon’ (2012:2). Indeed, there have even been documented cases in which initiatives to combat trafficking have done more harm than good – causing what the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women referred to (in a 2007 report) as ‘collateral damage,’ in which there is a risk of actually becoming a ‘victim of anti-trafficking.’
What solutions might the film then inspire? In the film, Solomon is clearly ‘different’ from other slaves, not only literate, but a talented violin player - and thus a truly civilised man. He seems to garner sympathy even from those who benefit from slavery, who seem to question whether he should be reduced to such as status. This includes William Ford, portrayed as the ‘good master’ who nonetheless purchases a woman in spite of her protests that she wants her child to be purchased along with her. He later sells her on because his wife cannot stand to hear her cries of grief any longer. The system, it seems, prevents those involved in it from acting on their better instincts. And when Solomon does receive help, it extends only to him as an individual. Others are left behind to endure their continued slavery. Unfortunately, there is a parallel to this aspect of Northup’s story today: in most cases, only those who can portray themselves as true ‘victims’ of trafficking seem to stand a chance of gaining assistance and support. Migrants who knew that they would violate migration policy, those who are seeking a new start from a troubled past, those who would be willing to engage in sex work in order to meet their needs and even achieve their dreams, or those who are not able to tell officials a clear and consistent story about their experience, all too often fail to fit into the ‘victim’ mould. They are thus frequently denied support, and may instead be criminalised.
The post-script to the film is also critical in thinking through the parallels. Solomon’s rescuer is a man who knew Solomon as a customer in the shop he ran. He comes from the North, where chattel slavery had already been abolished, and is able to take Solomon with him by producing legal documents to demonstrate Solomon’s status as free. However, Northup apparently sought to challenge his captors in the courts and failed - in part because as a black man, he was not allowed to testify. The idea of the North as following a rule of law in which freedom is valued for citizens who are treated with equality is belied by this aspect of Northup’s story, an aspect not portrayed in the film. And in the South, the legal abolition of slavery following the Civil War did not mean freedom for all former slaves. Rather, as Douglas Blackmon and others have demonstrated, the convict leasing system soon continued a state-sponsored system of extracting forced labour from African-American men. We cannot, then, be comforted by the myth that freedom and equality result simply from the march of progress and that some places are further along this path than others.
There is perhaps a prefiguring of the Civil War in the figure of the shopkeeper, who can be thought of as representing the North. But it is a rescue, and one which does not respond to any outright resistance by slaves. (There is some measure of resistance depicted in the film, but it is used to show how resistance could often fail. Further, as Carole Boyce Davies argues in The Guardian, there are more instances of resistance in the autobiography than shown in the film.) While Northup’s rescuer is one of the heroes of the film, he would nonetheless have been selling slave-made sugar in his shop while also wearing slave-grown cotton. He was, then, simultaneously complicit in the slave system.
Awareness is not enough. That we know of 21 million people in conditions so extreme they may be referred to as forced labour or even as ‘slavery’ is not sufficient to change this reality. Indeed, it is significant that Solomon’s story is analogous to trafficking rather than any other form of coercion and exploitation - such as debt bondage, which is in fact more common today. Trafficking receives undue emphasis in the media and in public campaigning, and this tells us that growing awareness can still include skewed perceptions and motivations. We need to acknowledge that the desire to rescue hapless victims is having little impact, and in some cases it is even having negative impacts. We need to identify and challenge the wider economic and political structures which create the conditions for so-called ‘modern-day slavery’– among them, deregulation of labour markets, punitive migration policies and inadequate responses to the concentration of power in global supply chains. We need to recognise that change is a product of struggle and that the struggles of workers, migrants, peasants and others fighting for justice are at least as important as efforts to restore individuals’ freedom through heroic acts of rescue.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole.
 Thanks to Bill Cooke, Helen McKee, Dirk Demuth and Andrew Baldwin for discussions about the film