Traffic Jam


by Michael Busch

 [Cover of Pardis Mahdavi's book
[Cover of Pardis Mahdavi’s book “Gridlock”]

Pardis Mahdavi, Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

In the ten years since Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) into law, human trafficking has been transformed from a public policy backwater into a critical component piece of national security. At the time, TVPA provided the capstone to a growing international movement dedicated to combating the trade in people. It explicitly criminalized all forms of human trafficking, promised a wealth of tools to remedy the phenomenon, offered abundant resources to protect its victims, and mandated the production of an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, a controversial registry of the world’s efforts at fighting forced labor.
While certain aspects of the TVPA were initially welcomed by human rights activists as a progressive development of American foreign policy, it quickly became clear that the law was not without its problems. Particularly striking was the legislative focus on the sex industry, a preoccupation that rests on a series of assumptions about the nature of prostitution and its participants. The resultant discourse around trafficking, which has shaped American foreign policy considerations of the subject, broadly casts sex workers — almost exclusively taken to be women — as unwitting victims shepherded into the trade against their will.

That human trafficking is so closely associated with slavery and the sex industry is certainly no accident. The considerable normative thrust behind policies designed to battle slavery — the most taboo practice in world affairs — has proven irresistible to the architects of law, as have calls from self-described feminist abolitionists, who until recently have effectively monopolized the trafficking debate by conflating the sex industry with forced prostitution.

But the focus on slavery and sex work oversimplifies the reality of human trafficking and frequently harms the very people anti-trafficking policies are intended to protect. So argues Pardis Mahdavi in Gridlock, an important new book examining labor, migration, and human trafficking in the Gulf region. As a corrective, Mahdavi — an assistant professor of anthropology at Ponoma College in California — attempts to do away with conventional wisdom by recasting the notion of sex work within a labor rights framework. This, she argues, will help narrow the trafficking agenda around involuntary bondage and help policymakers refine existing law to “avert further instances of force, fraud, and coercion” and “curb the damage currently being inflicted by trafficking policy and discourse.”

The book represents something of a break from Mahdavi’s previous research, in both subject matter and regional focus. Passionate Uprisings, her first book, offered intriguing insight into a supposed “sexual revolution” unfolding in Iran amongst elite Tehrani youth resisting the strictures of authoritarian rule since the turn of the new century. Though not without significant shortcomings, Uprisings usefully highlighted the importance of uncovering the intersections between sex and political structures, and showcased Mahdavi’s ability to smuggle serious scholarship into a compelling narrative designed for popular audiences.

In Gridlock, Mahdavi relates the variety of migrant experiences in Dubai during the twenty-first century, a period that has witnessed the emirate’s full blossoming as the Gulf region’s premiere port and playground for the rich. While neighboring Abu Dhabi relies on its superior oil reserves for economic advantage, Dubai has positioned itself as a hub for finance and tourism. Along the way, it has aggressively pursued development strategies that encourage heavy flows of migrant labor from abroad — so much so, in fact, that nationals currently represent a paltry four percent of the entire formal workforce.

Yet despite their overwhelming majority presence, migrant workers in Dubai are offered no hope of permanent residency, let alone citizenship. Instead, they must navigate the often harrowing kefala sponsorship structure, a system unique to member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and one that renders laborers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. “Within the kefala system, sponsors often confiscate employees’ passports,” Mahdavi writes, “effectively restricting their mobility and their ability to pursue other employment opportunities.” While some employers demonstrate concern for the well being of their workers, in other instances the confiscation of identity documents is merely the precursor to a life of hideous mistreatment.

Migrants choosing to break with abusive sponsors are compelled to leave the UAE and return to their home country, an option that may prove prohibitively expensive or economically hopeless. Legally exposed and desperate to stay afloat, some workers choose to remain in Dubai and take their chances in the informal sectors of the local economy, which women often find “provides them with higher wages and increased autonomy.” The money may be better, but, as Mahdavi makes clear, migrants choosing to go underground — especially those from sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia — are no less insecure, risking abuse from clients and harassment by the cops.

Importantly, however, Gridlock makes clear that such cases only make up part of the story. While some migrant workers are driven into the informal economy due to exigent circumstances, others migrate to Dubai with the express purpose of maximizing the economic advantage that sex work affords. Ladan, an Iranian woman Mahdavi interviews at length, “reported traveling to Dubai for a month every six months to earn large sums of money that allowed her to maintain her apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran and send her son to a private school.” Part-time sex work offers other advantages as well. “It’s easy work, easy money, and I get to feel like a princess for a month every now and then,” Ladan says. “I get to leave Iran, breathe freely . . . and it’s like a change for me. I like it.”

To be sure, this rosy assessment is not shared by the majority of women Mahdavi interviews. Those who choose sex work are rarely enthusiastic participants in the trade; rather, they come to view it as the best available opportunity given a range of considerations. “Look, this wasn’t my first choice of things to do,” says one Filipina migrant. “But I did it. I went to Dubai and did it, because my dad lost his job and my brother left us and we had no money. It was up to me, and now I’ve remodeled my house.” Another woman from Iran relates to Mahdavi a heartrending story of working in Dubai to cover the exorbitant cost of treating a severely ill child.

Well, I came to Dubai one summer looking for a doctor for my daughter. She is very sick, and she needs complicated procedures. We found a doctor who can help her, but it is very expensive . . . My husband and I are both educated people. He is an engineer, and I a trained doctor but there is no work for me in Tehran . . . everyone in Iran is suffering . . . But on that trip, I met several Iranian women who were doing this as a side business. They told me how much they were making and I was shocked and impressed. I told [my husband] that I had heard Iranian women could go to Dubai and make a lot of money doing this . . . He didn’t like it at first. I didn’t like it at first either . . . Whatever I make will go for her operation. That’s it, that’s just the way it is.

Whatever their reasons, women choosing sex work encounter a variety of experiences determined largely by their gender and what Mahdavi labels the three “aces” — race, space, and place — which shape the sociopolitical and economic topography of Dubai. “Race” — the term employed by locals to denote ethnicity or nationality — is especially important when examining the political economy of sex work in the Emirates:

Women from Iran, Morocco, and some parts of Eastern Europe (described as lighter skinned and white) command the highest price, and thus invariably work in the higher-paid, more comfortable environments of expensive bars . . . and inside luxury apartments in the wealthier part of town. Women from East Asia, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan (perceived as brown) form a middle tier (based on earnings) and often work in low end bars and clubs . . . or in brothels and massage parlors . . . Finally, women from Africa (specifically sub-Saharan and East Africa and perceived as black) are still conspicuously over-represented in the poorest and most dangerous sectors of the trade, namely street work.

In other words, income potential hinges chiefly on perceived ethnic origin and the relative lightness of one’s skin.

Ironically, however, ethnicity not only drives demand for sex work in Dubai but also determines to a great degree the supply of social service provision for women in need. Mahdavi is at her best in discussing the racialized morality of humanitarian intervention — a topic common to development dialogue but found less frequently in assessing efforts to combat trafficking — which operates according to perceptions of workers’ “countries of origin and conditions and areas in which they work.” The assumptions underpinning the fetishization of light-skinned women in Dubai, she suggests, preclude social service organizations from seeing these very same women as potential recipients of aid. Instead, Mahdavi asserts that Iranian and North African women are cast by some local humanitarian groups as “villains,” corrupting life in the Emirates and therefore deserving of any misfortune they may encounter, though the disappointing absence of evidence makes this claim more provocative than convincing.

Mahdavi argues that a startling number of humanitarian groups instead look to “save” sex workers from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia — women understood to be “ignorant, duped, or tricked into the dangerous situations in which they find themselves.” She rightly concludes that this “infantilizing and condescending” operating logic “limits the types of solutions and responses that social service providers are willing and able to consider,” and she persuasively shows just how the already precarious existence of migrant workers is exacerbated by the assumptions — globally and locally — undergirding the trafficking discourse and the policies that result.

The persistent gendering of trafficking debates offers a prime example. After all, it is not just women who face coercion, mistreatment, and fraud in the workplace. Male construction workers, taxicab drivers, and security guards who arrive in Dubai also face the possibility of exploitation and rights violations at the hands of their employers. Mahdavi relates the stories of a number of men who suffered workplace abuse, narratives that offer a timely corrective to the hyperscrutiny on women common to discussions of trafficking.

Take Arnel, who arrived in Dubai expecting to work in a factory, only to discover that he was being illegally shipped off to Iraq. “We were suddenly working at a US military base,” says the Filipino migrant. “We didn’t know what had happened . . . Can you imagine? I was afraid there in Baghdad, the war was fully there and it was scary. I wanted to go back to Dubai, so I kept calling my company there and begging them to take me back to the factory. No one listened.” After five months, Arnel was finally allowed to return to the Emirates, but not before being turned away several times at airport. “The worst part was that we had to be moved from the base to the airport, back and forth and that was scary. We couldn’t sleep at the airport, which I would have preferred, because it was closed in the evenings due to the war, but finally we got to leave and go back to Dubai.”

Arnel’s narrative, as well as the others that unfold throughout Gridlock, compellingly underscore Mahdavi’s call for a recalibration of global discussions around trafficking to accommodate the full spectrum of forced labor situations experienced by migrant workers. “Thus far, only certain voices have been privileged within the discourse, and those are the narratives of people who fit the current paradigm of sex trafficking through kidnapping.” In this sense, the book offers a valuable starting point for deconstructing notions about the trade in people that are produced by the conceptual collapsing of sex, labor, and human migration in popular discourse.

There’s no better place to begin, Mahdavi argues, than with the influential TIP Report. The State Department’s annual survey features a three-tiered ranking system designed to gauge the severity of trafficking within the borders of each country and the robustness of the state’s domestic response. Unsurprisingly, the United States and its western allies are firmly situated in the top tier, denoting a generally satisfactory condition. How countries rank in the second and third tiers, however, is something of a crapshoot, with different states bouncing between tiers from year to year and little clear sense of why. Pariah states, like North Korea, remain firmly anchored at the bottom of the heap, leading critics to charge Washington with using the TIP as a barometer of who’s in favor with the United States from year to year, not as a good faith effort at combating the trade in people.

It’s clear that the TIP has been received as little more than a tool of American hegemony swaddled in the feel-good language of human rights. This perspective is particularly acute in the Gulf region, Mahdavi argues, where “rankings of the TIP Report are perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Islam . . . Many perceive the ranking as a deliberate effort to reinforce a preexisting image of Muslims and Islam with the Western consciousness, an image of depravity, acceptance of violence, and indifference to suffering.” One activist’s rage could not be clearer. “They said you have a bad human rights track record . . . and we know how to fix it. You, you, Arabs, you Muslims don’t understand, and you need us. It pisses me off, it does!”

While this view surely oversimplifies the matter, there is something to be said for one UAE state official’s observation that TIP rankings are at least in part based on other foreign policy considerations. Searching for an explanation of why the Emirates had sunk a tier between 2008 and 2009, he tells Mahdavi: “We think it’s because the US wanted to sign a bilateral agreement about nuclear energy with the Emiratis (the ‘123 Agreement’), and so they moved us down to get a better deal, to make us feel worse and give the US leveraging power.”

And yet, Mahdavi refuses to condemn the TIP outright. Even with its many shortcomings, she sees promise in the possibility that the report can be overhauled to maximum advantage for migrant laborers while simultaneously assuaging the fear of critics who charge the TIP’s neocolonial intent. On this last point, Mahdavi too easily excuses herself from considering how her human rights-based recommendations might be received by the very critics she interviews, critics who reject any American meddling whatsoever. Nevertheless, her concluding optimism around the possibility of a more nuanced American approach to trafficking has been validated by recent changes in Washington.

“I am much more hopeful about the future of trafficking policy than I was when I began this project a few years ago,” Mahdavi admits in Gridlock’s closing pages. She notes that newly-appointed Ambassador on Trafficking Luis de Baca “is committed to reframing trafficking within a context of migrants rights, and TIP officers in his office were very open to criticisms of the TIP and eager to incorporate necessary changes; if and how they do so remains to be seen.” Early indications suggest they have, if only slightly. The most recent 2010 TIP report — while still married to many of the assumptions Mahdavi criticizes — takes pains to explicitly recognize the various types of forced labor and laborers found throughout the world, including, for the first time, the United States.

But as Washington — and indeed the rest of the world — lumbers to catch up conceptually with the multidimensional reality of trafficked human beings, the phenomenon shows no signs of dissipating any time soon. Verifiable numbers are notoriously difficult to come by, but best estimates suggest that upwards of 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year. Astonishingly, another ten to thirty million people are currently believed to have been pressed into forced labor, not just in brothels and sex clubs, but just as frequently in fields and factories, warzones, and mansions.

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