Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

Consumerism and Cheap Labor (2 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.

Consumer Denial

The hype and focus on sex trafficking encourages North Americans to ignore capitalist- and consumer-driven demand for cheap labor in other markets such as agriculture, textiles, automotive manufacturing and domestic labor. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) makes it easier and lucrative for corporations to export manufacturing jobs to Mexico where workers are under-paid and labor and environmental provisions to protect workers are not enforced. This, in turn, gives workers incentive to cross borders in search of better opportunities. However, workers without legal documentation to be employed in the US are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The sex trafficking obsession relieves us of guilt and accountability as consumers. We get to tell ourselves that we are ‘saving’ those poor, unfortunate foreign women- all the while pouring money into sweatshop labor and slave-wages for agricultural workers each time we make a purchase. How often do we as North American consumers actually consider where our products come from? Further, how often do we hold the corporations that profit from cheap labor accountable for the human rights abuses that they perpetuate?

The demand that drives the exploitation of human labor is not a demand for sex. It is a demand for cheap products. Look around you right now, how many of the items in view do you know the source of? Not just the store where they were purchased, but the source of the material. Where did the tiny little screws holding together these computers that we’re using come from? Are we willing to pay more for these products in order to ensure that laborers are paid fair wages and have safe working conditions? We do have responsibilities as consumers to be conscious about how we spend our money.

Check out The Story of Stuff for an in-depth look at how consumerism in North America affects labor markets, living conditions and the environment in developing countries.

If you actually care about ending human trafficking, it is critical that you look beyond the media glare on sex trafficking and understand the broader conditions that influence labor migration. Check out Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.


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4 thoughts on “Consumerism and Cheap Labor (2 of 6)

  1. Vegan Vixen on said:

    You’re so right, Stacey! Human trafficking is caused by a complexity of economic conditions that extend beyond just any one industry. When people act like the demand for sex is at the root of human trafficking, I wonder if that’s to avoid acknowledging how capitalism leads to this since they don’t wish to make capitalism seem bad, or if they’re just unaware. Whether we like, dislike, or have mixed feelings toward capitalism, it does come with a cost either way. With all the focus the U.S. government has put into the issue of trafficking, I don’t see any mention of how capitalism contributes to this, which isn’t to surprising considering that the U.S. is a very capitalistic country and a leader in globalization. I wonder if it would be possible to stop or minimize trafficking under capitalism, or if we would need to a different economic system.

    • I think capitalism is a nuanced system. It’s not as easy as with/without capitalism. Bailing out the banks when they failed was not capitalism/free market. Under capitalism they should have just folded and new systems would have developed to replace them. So we can’t talk about capitalism without having a context of the political landscape driving the economy. Since slavery and forced labor have existed in some form under all economic models, I suspect the issue has a lot to do with dysfunction of the human spirit. That’s all a long way of saying that no matter what economic system we have, we cannot end trafficking if we don’t heal the collective traumas of humanity. Huge task!!

  2. One more thing, I don’t think paying more for products would necessarily ensure workers have better wages or working conditions. It could just put more money in the CEO’s pockets as well a high management (who are already way richer than many of the consumers buying the products. There are various companies that charge consumers a lot, but provide poor pay and working conditions to people making the products. Also, some consumers are also low-wage workers who don’t have that much extra money to spend either.

    • Thanks VV! I agree, being willing to pay more is not enough. And for most of us it’s not about being willing but also being able to pay more. We have to demand fair labor conditions in all sectors so that both consumers and workers have the resources to make the best choices for humans and for the environment.

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