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The blame game

Winter’s end in the UK has brought along several interesting anti-trafficking initiatives.  Sexual violence converged with interpretations about victim responsibility in the media; Crimestoppers launched a new video seeking to raise awareness of forced labour; and a campaign focused on the exploitation of London’s hotel workers gained an audience at Westminster.

Last year, West Mercia police had to apologise for their anti-rape campaign which linked alcohol and rape, following pubic complaints; the campaign seemed to blame the victim for, well, being a victim.  In December 2012, The Independent carried an article which rounded-up the various “blame the victim” slurs and campaigns, from organisations and individuals alike.  This included George Galloway’s (MP) demotion of the rape allegations against Julian Assange as “bad sexual etiquette”.  January saw social media alive with the consternation at yet more instances of victim blaming relating to sexual violence.  A Gloucestershire MP stated:

If you are a young woman on her own trying to walk back home … early in the morning in a tight, short skirt and high shoes and there’s a predator and if you are blind drunk and wearing those clothes how able are you to get away?   … life doesn’t give you full protection from a predator all the time.

It seems though that no-one told the BBC that victim blaming was out.  Their odd story, supposedly to coincide with Valentine’s Day, “How safe do women feel on a night out?” interviewed five women about their personal safety concerns when on a night out with friends, which focused depressingly on the correlation between their choice of clothing and safety from sexual violence.  Across the pond, advice faired no better, as reflected in the worrying advice from the University of Colorado, which encouraged women to tell their attackers that they had a disease or were menstruating, as a method of repelling an attack.

Perpetrators are absent from these discussions on sexual violence or portrayed as the invisible evil. But in a new interactive Crimestoppers’ video created to educate the public on labour exploitation, the perpetrators are front and centre, portrayed as hackneyed foreign men replete with silver chains and leather jackets.  Crimestoppers, for the uninitiated, is a UK charity with the primary function of running an anonymous phone number that members of the public can call to relay information on crime; they also undertake campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives.  The provision of such an awareness-raising campaign by one of the most influential non-government organisations working on crime in the UK today should be considered positive.  Labour trafficking is nominally treated as sex trafficking’s poor relation; a focus on this crime is sorely needed, particularly after the Olympic sex trafficking hysteria. Sadly, this campaign is instead confusing and potentially damaging.

The accompanying press release claims, “Viewers are presented with clickable choices throughout the video as to whether they decide to help her [the victim] by passing on information anonymously to Crimestoppers”.  Really!? The approach to educating the public is to make into one big game?  How you, the saviour, can help the ‘ickle beaten and downtrodden victim?  As we’ve previously argued, public awareness campaigns are imperative, but should be negotiated with care.  In particular, Laura Augustin has addressed this issue eloquently in a range of posts; the rescue industry is not something we should be encouraging.  If the trafficking process, by its very nature, disempowers people, the development of an interactive game, focused on “saving victims” surely perpetuates this disempowerment.  The objective of the game denies the agency of victims and overlooks their role or ability in extracting themselves from their situation. They instead function as passive observers – things are done to them, rather than by them; they are reliant completely on an intermediary hero.  The enthusiasm for games and apps as tools for trafficking prevention has been a feature of the US landscape (produced by NGOs and others) for a while.  Despite a potentially infantilising, disempowering impact on the anti-trafficking narrative, it seems that few lessons have been learnt in the UK from those experiences.

In the game, the “rescuer” drives down a road and encounters the female victim of…..it’s never really made clear…. After the rescuer is shown a vague simulation of some kind of crime, s/he is provided with two choices: to “help her” (the victim) or “keep driving”.  The fact that the viewer/ rescuer isn’t given any information about the woman’s problem makes any intervention difficult and sends a confused message to the public.  The simulated crime is a woman seemingly having an argument with a man near an open van as they tussle over her handbag.  Should I help because she is being robbed?  Should I help because the man with whom she is tussling looks ‘shady’?  To be honest, I don’t think I would feel safe stopping.  Maybe I have lived in shady neighbourhoods for too long, but even so, there is nothing in this video to indicate I am witnessing an incident of labour trafficking and that I should be leaping in to assist.  And, as my colleague pointed out, there is surely something ironic in asking me to forgo my personal safety as a single woman to “help”.  The point of the game is to educate the public about trafficking.  But what it’s doing is presenting a very narrow and ambiguous depiction of the crime, asking the public to identify it and then asking the public to take action.

It is only when you choose to “help her” does it become clear that the woman in the video is one of many, intended to represent exploited women forced to work in a clothing factory.  The following scene shows the woman being forced into an ordinary looking house on an ordinary street, where multiple victims are staying in poor conditions.  There is very little information prior to this scene which would lead one to this conclusion.  If part of the aim is to educate the public about the signs of forced labour, then this is doing a poor job.  The most obvious omission is the fact that trafficking for forced labour in the UK, is the most common form of the exploitation of children.

This campaign misses a trick.  For instance, surely there would be more benefit in focusing not on the random passerby, but on local communities? Perhaps by asking people to be aware when they hear residents but rarely see them (though this is perhaps futile in London) or noticing the presence of excessive security around a property.  The provision of a checklist would add some value here (especially to differentiate it from the residence of a drug gang!).  It would also build the relationship between the police and local communities.

Further, the video also includes a lascivious manager character who appears to use the threat of sexual violence as a method of control.  This scenario may exist in reality; but reiterating this situation in the context of a crime prevention tool to educate the public on the signs of trafficking, confuses the message.  In this respect, the use of sexual violence as a method of control is one aspect of the exploitative process but seems to tap more into the established obsession in the UK with sex trafficking.  What is Crimestoppers asking people to look for?  Women being robbed on the street?  Poor working conditions?  Threats or sexual violence (neither of which are easy to spot in a moving car)?

Alternatively, if one chooses to “keep driving”, the same scenario is prefaced with the opening statement on screen: “Here’s what you may have prevented…”’ Nothing like layering up the guilt; a switch to witness blaming.  Any blame on the perpetrators, those facilitating the process, meting out the violence or strategising the exploitation is wholly absent.  We should be grateful that they don’t blame the female victims.  This is a real lost opportunity for campaigns as a focus on forced labour should be welcomed; an aspect of trafficking which was often subsumed in the Olympic sex trafficking hysteria of 2012.

In contrast, when advocates and researchers get it right, the potential impact of such a campaign could be positive.  In January, the Parliamentary launch of a campaign organised by Anti-Slavery International and the Institute for Human Rights and Business, took place, together with speakers including from Unite the Union and International Tourism Partnership.

The Staff Wanted Initiative focuses on “combating forced labour, trafficking and exploitation in the UK hospitality industry”.  Its aim is to:

improve the recruitment and employment of staff in the UK hospitality industry by working with business partners and other stakeholders to help identify practices that can allow exploitation of workers in the sector, and as a consequence, reputational and legal risk for business, and to advocate for improved practice and risk mitigation.

The first part of the project was targeted at hotels in London that were employing such labour (though, interestingly, not at those staying at hotels) in the run up to the London Olympics.  Phase two is focused on expanding this initiative nationally.  At the centre of the campaign is the SEE Formula, which encourages hotels to: Scrutinise their relationships with job agencies (those providing cheap migrant, and often vulnerable, labour); Engage with their workforces to spot cases of exploitation and Ensure that relevant protection procedures are in place.  In the discussion which followed the presentations, a question was asked as to why Government was facilitating hotels in the provision of low wages by supporting workers with state benefits (in the form of tax credits and housing assistance)?  In other words, hotels could pay poor wages as their worker’s living costs were met by the state.

It appears that a gap now existed which used to be sufficiently filled by the national  minimum wage.  The extortionate cost of living in London led to the development of a London Living Wage, in recognition that travel and housing costs were much higher in the capital.  While sadly a voluntary scheme, it has made some inroads into tackling the financial challenges faced by low paid workers.  Its implementation in the hotel trade seems to have been minimal.  Most recently, and perhaps rather surprisingly, Barking and Dagenham Council recently announced that they would pay a wage of £9 per hour to their staff.  One can only hope others, both state employers and those in the private sector, take note and realise that while paying low wages may serve primarily to increase profits, doing so further entrenches people in working poverty.

The Staff Wanted Initiative is holistic in its approach to the issue; rather than just focusing on victims or witnesses, it goes to the heart of those facilitating and developing exploitation.  More could be done to address the role of the state in the facilitation of this exploitation by re-examining how hotels, and others in the hospitality industry, treat their workers.  There may also be a case for involving, more substantially, those staying at such hotels.  Further, this initiative moves beyond blame to action – sure a more positive and effective approach?

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