Human Trafficking: Definitions, Interventions, and Politics

In this podcast episode, Mia Biondi, Caroline Pugh-Roberts, and AnnaLise Trudell discuss the different ways that we as a community are trying to define and respond to human trafficking in our region. We explore some of the debates surrounding the definition of sex trafficking (should all sex work and prostitution be defined as trafficking?) and the resulting differences in approaches to intervention and political advocacy (should sex work be decriminalized and regulated or rather policed more heavily?). Despite the differences to approaching the issue, what do all ‘sides’ of the discussion agree on?

Mia Biondi is a Registered Nurse with a special interest in increasing healthcare provider awareness and knowledge on human trafficking issues in Canada, as well as organizational readiness to identify, and provide aftercare for trafficked persons. Before beginning a career in nursing she completed a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology studying HIV drug resistance, and post-doctoral fellowships in viral hepatitis and emerging viruses. Following her BScN, Mia worked as the Clinical Coordinator at All Saints Church-Community Centre in Toronto providing comprehensive trauma-informed care for trafficked youth, and drop-in health services for street-involved persons. During this time she led training for city staff, police services, and specialized health teams. She also has clinical experience in public and sexual health, severe and persistent mental health, and pediatrics. In 2015, in collaboration with the Middlesex-London Chapter, Mia submitted a Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario resolution to advocate for increased prevention, identification, and aftercare of trafficked persons. Mia is now completing the Primary Health Care Nurse Practitioner Certificate at Western University, and is an active member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.

Caroline Pugh-Roberts is a survivor of eight years of sex trafficking through strip clubs in Ontario and along the 401 corridor. As an executive member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, she focuses on advocacy and educating others. She has spoken publicly to thousands of people Canada-wide, including advocacy groups and front-line providers. She speaks at John School, a court-mandated program for men who are arrested for buying sex services; and at the other end of the spectrum, runs a sex-worker drop-in at safe space for women in London, ON. She has also been an advisor on training packages for front-line providers for the provinces of both Ontario and British Columbia. She is the recipient of a Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work in this area, and currently a social work student at Fanshawe College. Caroline was recently invited to partake in The First Canadian Experiential Women’s Summit, in Toronto, for survivors of human trafficking who have shared their story with the public. She aspires to pursue a career providing care for women in the sex trade and trafficked persons.

AnnaLise Trudell (@annatrudell) is Manager of Education, Training & Research at Anova (formerly Women’s Community House & Sexual Assault Centre London). She brings extensive analysis of sexual violence and gender dynamics through her research at Western University, and is a seasoned public educator and facilitator with over 500 presentations engaging youth, professionals & post-secondary students through public education. She supports a staff team of 8 individuals who run dozens of youth violence prevention discussion-based groups every year. In her role as Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University, she seeks to amplify the voices of sex workers, offering a harm reduction sex positive approach to looking at the ways in which digital literacy can foster social inclusion and health for sex workers.

Episode notes:

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Poverty-Industrial Complex

As a nation, we’ve said many things about eradicating poverty and ending homelessness:

Let us affirm today, in this Parliament, that as a nation, by the beginning of the twenty-first century — only eleven years away — child poverty in this great Canada will be a relic of the past. (Ed Broadbent speaking to the House of Commons on November 24, 1989, on the motion to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. The motion was unanimously adopted.)

In my city, poverty has been the focus of much political discussion. In 2001, we said this:

By 2006 no resident of London will be homeless. (Community Plan on Homelessness in London, October 2001, pg. 40)

And in 2010:

Unlike previous plans, this Community Plan on Homelessness is a comprehensive reflection of the voice of the community. The Community Plan on Homelessness transcends any one funding program and is designed for alignment across a broad range of initiatives to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness. (London Community Plan on Homelessness, November 2010, pg. 15)

And in 2016:

The goal of these recommendations is for London to reach its full potential by ending poverty in one generation… Panels have been struck before, recommendations developed, plans made. Even with the best of intentions and efforts, we haven’t been able to bring about the big changes we are looking for. What makes things different this time? (London for All: A Roadmap to End Poverty, March 2016, pg. 2, 12)

Admittedly, cynicism comes easy. For others, a sense of aggravated pessimism and resentment is a default (and arguably justifiable) response to the past thirty years of political action on poverty. Broadly speaking, the last three decades of consultations, expert opinions, and academic research studies have all yielded pretty much the same outcome: an almost standardized, copy-and-paste list of recommendations never seem to get enough political traction in the real world. A 2008 discussion paper from my city’s research and planning department sums up the common recommendations that emerge from such processes:

…the general strategies for addressing poverty in a community are consistent: advocating for increased income through higher social assistance and minimum wage rates, taxation strategies, and child benefit levels; increasing access to community supports such as quality child care, adequate and safe housing, and transportation; increasing access to health supports; addressing issues that contribute to poor education outcomes and poor jobs… (Poverty Elimination in London: A Municipal Approach to Community Well-Being and Vitality, Social Research & Planning, April 17, 2008, pg. 47)

When it comes to addressing poverty, the kernel of our collective frustration is blatant: if we’ve been saying more or less the same things for so many years, why has so little been done? Every time yet another government consultation goes live — gathering yet more input from “people with lived experience” and community stakeholders — the indignation grows just a bit louder: we already told you what the issues are. As evidenced in community consultations of all kinds, we have a definite threshold for participating in public engagement schemes: the less implementation we see as a result of our previous input, the less inclined we are to accept future invitations to participate. Trust is a finite resource. In the end, for many, this circuit of consultations and research programs appears to be a circus of indifference and inaction:

Almost a decade of empty discussions about “poverty reduction” has shown that consultation is a diversionary tactic to avoid tackling poverty. (Let’s break the cycle of endless studies and consultations, Mike Balkwill, September 12, 2016, Toronto Star)

The following exchange is an imaginary dialogue to illustrate the situation:

“Would you be willing to participate in a research project to help us better understand the issues affecting people experiencing poverty?”

“What about the study you interviewed me for last year?”

“It was a great research project! And we thank you for your participation. Your insights helped us craft several important policy recommendations.”

“But nothing about my dire situation has changed.”

“Yes, unfortunately the government didn’t implement all the recommendations we proposed based on our findings.”

“So what was the point of the last study, then?”

“Well, we generated some terrific data. And we were able to win a another grant to this new study!”

“So, they have given you more money to ask me why I have no money?”

“Uh, well… If we can understand poverty, we’ll be able to make the system work better and more efficiently to serve people.”

“That’s what you said last time you asked me to be in one of your studies. I think my poverty might just be helping you stay employed.”

Let’s call this phenomenon the “poverty-industrial complex.” Like a military-industrial complex, it appears to be a league of elites devoted to funding one another’s pet projects. From the outside, at least, they might seem more interested in extracting money from one another than actually eradicating poverty itself. It is a system that appears to sustain insiders who are making names themselves on the backs of the impoverished: dissecting and commentating on the lives of their subjects — the poor — like laboratory rats. Many papers and resume-polishing articles are published for other elites to read. It all begins to look conspiratorial: nothing seems to change, but more and more public money is spent on the salaries of highly educated (and comfortably unionized) experts to research why nothing seems to change. The longer nothing changes, the more of them seem to be hired. And when a new political party promises to address poverty, what do they do upon winning office? They hire even more elites to do more studies. Another anti-poverty campaign. Another round of consultations. Another prestigious award for an upstanding in-group do-gooder. Another funding increase announced with fanfare and glossy brochures.

There are significant careers to be had and salaries to be made in professionally studying, talking, and theorizing about poverty. And yet there are still people desperately struggling in our city. I think it is the collision of these two realities where the breakdown of social trust snowballs into outright resentment.

One might think it would be alarming to everyone that the people we task as a society to study and address poverty are increasingly referred to as a social class of their own — the “poverty expert elites,” as it were. But perhaps this should be no surprise: accepting public money to study and comment on public social issues effectively makes one a public figure — and it leaves one’s motives and legitimacy open to scrutiny in the public sphere, much like a politician. (Except, unlike politicians, poverty experts do not have to seek reelection, which invites the public to be even more skeptical of their authority and position.) Ultimately, everyone who speaks to public social policy necessarily ventures into the public arena, which inherently invites criticism. (Expound this variable if your salary is linked to public money, and multiply it yet again if your career is directly linked to other people’s lack of resources, power, or social mobility.)

We often fail to recognize is the degree to which social heroism can be toxic for community.

Turning a blind eye to the realities and optics of this system is irresponsible and counterproductive to the stated cause of reducing poverty itself. The fact that the “fight against poverty” has created a socioeconomic tier from which people feel structurally and economically marginalized seems, in the long run, catastrophic to the struggle against poverty itself. And inasmuch as anti-poverty work is a struggle against inequality and systemic barriers to resources, anything that exemplifies “elitism” or resembles “insider trading” is more than just a problematic public image issue. Ignoring the real-life obstacles and inefficiencies that the poverty-industrial complex has created because we are “just too passionate about ending poverty to be distracted by the naysayers” is endemic to a willfully blind system caught in its own inertia.

(This post serves as an introductory ‘part 1’ of an informal, multipart reflection on the so-called poverty-industrial complex. I will explore the system from several angles. I am curious how it might be reimagined, circumvented, redeemed, or, perhaps, abolished. Full disclosure: I am presently employed part-time by a university-funded research centre that includes “Poverty and inequality” as an area of research. The extent to which I am personally implicated in the very system under critique is my driving motivation for this series. Like all writing and projects on this site, this work is composed entirely on personal time.)

Also see:

What is the Cost of Poverty for Everyone?

Imagine if we actually knew how much poverty cost us in economic terms. What if we could take everything into account — from the cost of shelters, to the strain on the health care system, to the lost economic productivity due to people not working — and then calculated a number? Gerda Zonruiter suggests that developing a common metric for measuring the economic impact of poverty helps communities make better and more strategic decisions.

Gerda Zonruiter is a researcher and evaluation consultant assisting human and social services organizations make evidence-based decisions. Prior to working independently, she spent 15 years working as a social policy researcher for the City of London.

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How Will Capitalism End?

Wolfgang Streeck is featured in the latest episode of CBC Ideas, talking about his recent book, How Will Capitalism End?, in which he argues that the end of the democratic-capitalist experiment is nigh. The episode is called Surviving Post-Capitalism: Coping, hoping, doping & shopping.

The end of capitalism can then be imagined as a death from a thousand cuts or from a multiplicity of infirmities, each of which will be all the more untreatable as all will demand treatment at the same time. (2:05)

The whole episode is worth a listen. One part I found particularly interesting is Streeck’s ‘long view’ of capitalism as a pendulum swinging desperately between crisis, solution, and solutions that turn into crises of their own. In a nutshell, Streeck argues that

  • capitalism drives conflict between capital and labour
  • which, in turn, is solved by inflation
  • which, in turn, is solved by excessive public debt
  • which, in turn, is solved by unregulating private debt
  • which, in turn, is solved by basically printing more money

How long can this dicey game of ping-pong continue? Not much longer, according to Streeck. Capitalism is facing the same challenges it encountered at the end of post-war growth, but this time around it has already exhausted the ‘solutions’ used to divert collapse in the past. Beginning at around the 15:33 mark of the podcast, tells the story:

To be precise, three crises followed one another: the global inflation of the 1970s, the explosion of public debt in the 1980s, and rapidly rising private debt in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of the financial markets in 2008. This sequence was by and large the same for all major capitalist countries, whose economies have never been in equilibrium since the end of post-war growth at the end of the 1960s. All three crises began and ended in the same way, following an identical political-economic logic. Inflation, public debt, and the deregulation of private debt started out as politically expedient solutions to distributional conflicts between capital and labour, until they became problems themselves. Solutions turned into problems requiring new solutions, which however, after another decade or so, became problems themselves, calling for yet other solutions that soon turned out to be as short-lived and self-defeating as their predecessors.

Coming out of the 1960s, post-war growth slowed down. This resulted — in all major capitalist societies — in increasing distributional conflict between capital and labour. The 1970s were a period of very high strike rates in almost all of our countries. Now what did governments do? In order to pacify such a conflict, as you can say in technical language, [they] accommodate[d] overshooting wage demands by allow[ing] for an increased rate of inflation. Now both sides basically think that they are doing fine. There’s more money around. Prices are rising, but this is sort of a secondary consideration: unions can always go out and ask for another wage round, in which they can increase their wages in order to compensate for the same inflation that resulted from the previous wage round.

Now, for governments this can be a comfortable way of dealing with intensified conflict. But over the years, if this continues, inflation has all sorts of negative consequences for the economy as a whole: it distorts relative prices, and it makes investors cautious about putting their money into a world where money is losing its value. Inflation, for a while stabilizes employment, in the longer term it results in high unemployment. In the late 1970s, after the very high inflation rate of the mid-70s, this began to show.

Then governments, seeing this, began to stabilize money. This begins in the 1980s in the United States, with the ‘Volcker revolution‘ as you can call it: interest rates, resulting in inflation no longer being a problem.

But the result was the beginning of deindustrialization in many countries. That is, the unemployment that could have taken place in the ’70s now took place in one big wave in the 1980s. And in order now to deal with this conflict, governments began to increase spending without being able to cover the spending by taxes. There were tax revolts also. And that resulted in a new solution, which was an increase in public debt. And this also applies to all the major capitalist countries: debt begins to increase the moment inflation goes down. And that’s another way of managing conflict.

Now, [you begin to think that] public debt is fine. You don’t have to tax your rich citizens or even your middle class citizens. And you can nevertheless pay for unemployment benefits, which begin to increase after the 1970s. But at some point, those that lend you the money — let’s call them the ‘financial markets’ — begin to wonder whether the steady increase in public debt that you observe in the 1980s will lead to a point where governments will be unable to service the debt. The 1990s were a period when this became so urgent that under the leadership of the Clinton administration, and then the OECD, the World Bank, and so on, that a period of consolidation began. We have to consolidate public budgets and we have to contain public debt, which was quite successful if you look at the curves in the 1990s.

But at this point, another problem opened up. You had to cut social welfare benefits, you had to cut public spending, and public services, which resulted in two things: (1) a gap in [effective demand]( (states spending less, that had a negative affect on growth) and also (2) the dissatisfaction among citizens, who now didn’t know how to pay for the education of their children. What do you do? In response, you deregulate the financial markets in order to enable more people to take up credit in order to fill that gap. What you see in the 1990s is that as public debt goes down, private debt shoots up. And again: this is not just in one, or two, or three countries — this is a global phenomenon; the curves are very, very similar.

Now to continue the story of the solutions that become problems, deregulating finance means basically, technically, that you allow evermore risky credit being taken up or given to borrowers, so [now] you move into the sub-prime sector, where the risks that are associated the risks that are associated with credit become accumulated in the financial system. In 2008, all the private sector techniques of risk management broke down, and this was the end of the private sector debt solution to the distributional problem.

Now, what are we doing? We are in phase four, I claim. Where the solution is simply the printing of money. And this is where you can ask, “Will this last longer than ten years?” Because all the other things were basically ten years and then they had to be replaced by something else. I argue, no. It can’t continue forever. And I’m in very good company there. The Bank of International Settlements, which is the central banks of central banks so to speak, every year in their yearly report they say, “This has to have an end because nobody knows what is going to happen next.”

I found this analysis to be an interesting ‘action/reaction’ sequence of logic; a reconstruction of capitalism’s crisis/corrections/crisis cycle over the past four decades. What do you think?

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Santa Claus Economics

As long as the gifts are duly wrapped, delivered and tucked under the tree, children can happily go about their holiday bliss with no thought whatsoever about Santa’s completely undisclosed sourcing for raw materials. Neither need they give pause to wonder about the North Pole’s CSR position. What child stops and considers the wages and living conditions that elves receive in remunerative compensation? Since Santa’s revenue stream seems minimal (warm milk and cookies does not monetize to scale), there arise serious uncertainties about his corporation’s employee care policies. Indeed, Santa’s drive to undercut all competition leaves any thoughtful observer to only speculate at the true externalities.

A thorough calculation might leave some people to wonder if North Pole Corp is in fact a fraudulent institution that merely pads the belly of it’s CEO at the expense of its workforce. (Santa is the 1% – #occupynorthpole) But of course, Santa’s global marketing team has successfully squashed every rumor of his operation’s unethical behavior by spinning his image as a benevolent philanthropist for children around the world. This branding campaign of pediatric concern is unparalleled in its success, especially considering that even the metrics used to determine Santa’s gift payout scheme program for moral behavior — known simply to outsiders as the “nice list” — has never been made available for an ethics committee to scrutinize.

No, there’s a plain explanation for all of this: it’s just magic. Christmas magic. So forget about it. Holiday cheer, my friends, joyous Noel!

However, if you think Santa Claus is a thing of mythology, legend, and fairy tale, do you dare to ask yourself where all this stuff actually comes from?

Only if Santa’s magic were true could we celebrate this holiday with a clear conscious. (And what’s really more ridiculous: a benevolent man with a flying sleigh or a society that builds its entire retail economic vitality on a yearly shopping event?) Thankfully, as long as we keep believing the fairy tale of Santa Claus economics we avoid the need to investigate the actual consequences of this annual materialistic rampage.

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