What is Human Trafficking?

Is the term ‘human trafficking’  interchangeable with the word ‘slavery’? In my research on human trafficking, it appears that the two are generally accepted to be either synonymous or, at the very least, inextricably linked.

Let’s consider children who are sold for adoption, such as babies in Asia being sold to Western couples. It seems fair to say they these infants are trafficked, but it doesn’t mean they’re being sold into slavery.

I’ve read articles which claim that the human trafficking industry is rampant here in Japan. When I examined what appears to be the accepted definitions of sex workers and forced labourers, I found myself disagreeing with some interpretations.

The victims of human trafficking who seem to be talked about most regularly are female sex workers. As far as I can tell, their status as slaves seems to be automatically assumed and there is a presupposition that they are in some way forced to perform acts against their will. While this may be true for certain types of cases, I don’t believe it is true to the extent which the articles intend me to believe. I say this because women working in hostess bars were included in the category.

I have two Japanese friends who used to work in hostess bars and they did so because it’s a very highly paid job which doesn’t require any special qualifications. When they described their duties to me, it was clear that they were paid to talk (well, listen) to lonely men about mostly ordinary things. Any kind of intimate contact of an adult nature was not part of the job and they were free to quit at any time without being threatened or coerced.

What about foreign hostesses in Tokyo? Have they been trafficked into slavery? When I was an engineer working in telecoms, my company rewarded my team for achieving our objective against an impossibly tight deadline by paying for us to visit a hostess bar in Ueno. The staff were from the Philippines and each had a different story for how they came to work there. One woman wanted to earn money to send home to her family. One woman claimed that she took the job so she could get away from her husband, though I think that may have been a joke. They worked in the club for a year and left when their visas expired. One of the staff was a singer who found the bar to be a lucrative venue where she could perform to an adoring audience, and it was her third time to travel to Japan to work there. They were absolutely not sex workers, as some aritcles have implied, and they definately were not slaves.

While it’s possible that sex workers get trafficked into Japan, I would question whether or not that is always the case. It is possible that some of them may have chosen to work as prostitutes (though I can understand that there are people who choose not to believe that – I’ll talk about that later) and that they entered the country ‘under the radar’, but I would say that these people have been smuggled rather than trafficked. If they paid to receive false travel documents, would it be more correct to consider them criminals rather than victims?

As for men who are trafficked in Japan for labour, I found myself questioning what I had read. Sure, some foreigners are brought to Japan by various companies, are paid very low salaries and work incredibly long hours without being paid overtime. But this doesn’t mean they’ve been trafficked or that they’re modern-day slaves. It’s quite common for people in Japan (locals and foreigners) to work extended hours without the extra pay they’re legally entitled to. One could even argue that the culture demands it! Many of the large corporations demand that their staff relocate to another part of the country so they can assume their new duties and, while I think it’s unfair, I wouldn’t call it trafficking. Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any articles which disagree with me on that one.

Why does the definition of ‘human trafficking’ appear to be so broad? Well, there are people whose agenda benefits from having hard hitting stories of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves or statistics of large numbers of people who are categorised as being involved in the industry in one of a variety of roles. Some estimate that there are 30 million people living in modern slavery, and that’s a figure which is likely to grab ones attention. However, others estimate the figure to be 2.5 million. So far, it looks to me like no one really knows. It could be a simple case of exaggeration, but it could also be that the definition needs to be refined. I wonder what impact that would have on the efforts to combat the many problems which currently bear that lable. Why does it matter? I wonder what impact it would have on public perception if they’re led to believe one thing about the scale of the problem and later find out that the truth is less sensational.

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