Events / Ryerson

Human trafficking: What’s going on?

Kathryn-Lynn Raskina

Photos by Kathryn-Lynn Raskina. 

Canadians have been misinformed about the crime against humanity known as human trafficking. This was the main message driven home at the panel event, “Human Trafficking: What’s Going On”that took place on Nov. 30 at the Ted Rogers School of Business at Ryerson University.

“There has been a lot of media attention around the event, but many people don’t realize what it is truly all about,” said Emily Van Der Meulen, a criminal justice professor at Ryerson.  Van Der Meulen was one of the professors who organized the event.

Human trafficking, as defined by Public Safety Canada, “involves the recruitment, transportation, harboring and/ or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labor.” According to the ministry, the majority of the victims of human trafficking are women and children.

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The opinions we have of human trafficking aren’t “informed opinions” said Melissa Ditmore, the first panelist to address the issue. Ditmore is a research consultant for the Sex Workers Project and is the author of the book, Prostitution and Sex Work.

Ditmore condoned the emotional images of human trafficking that have structured society’s perception of the atrocious crime, calling them “misleading”. The dramatic posters you see at bus shelters of battered south Asian women and films, such as Selling of Innocents, are not accurate depictions of human trafficking, said Ditmore.

Annalee Lepp, another speaker on the panel, added to Ditmore’s argument, saying that is just as important to question human trafficking statistics. Lepp is the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Victoria.

Lepp outlined the steps that Canada has taken to address human trafficking.

Human trafficking has been a serious violation of human rights in Canada since the late 1990s. In Canada, human trafficking is a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Just recently, the Government of Canada launched a National Action Plan to fight against human trafficking.

“All of these anti-trafficking campaigns have been counter-productive,” said Lepp.

Today the Canadian government is hammering down on domestic trafficking, with a specific focus on aboriginal women and children.

The Canadian government instead should be “finding ways to help people from the harm that anti-trafficking measures do,” said Lepp.

Nandita Sharma, the third speaker on the panel, said that human trafficking couldn’t be understood outside of immigration policies. Sharma, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hawai’i, said that the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada increases every year.

“There is barely a word about there being hundreds of thousands of people recruited to work in Canada or the U.S. as temporary or foreign workers,” Sharma said. Most of these foreign workers “are not fully cognitive of the terms and conditions of their employment or living conditions.”

She went on to describe how their employers and the state threaten these foreign workers with deportation and how they repeatedly face violence and harassment. Sharma said that the employers fail to fulfill the promises outlined in the contract that they used to initially lure the foreign workers to Canada.

Sharma went on to explain that the reason why there is “a lack of outcry” about the denial of liberties and freedom of these foreign workers is due to the fact that the recruitment agencies that bring these workers to Canada are legislated by the state. So, according to the state, if a worker consciously signed a form to become a temporary foreign worker “no harm has been done to you,” said Sharma.

The state will only consider these foreign workers wronged if they are moved into the category of an illegal worker, if they were forced to work for an employer not assigned to them by the state, or if they can prove that a recruitment agent tricked them into becoming a foreign worker with the false promise of them becoming permanent residents, said Sharma.

This was news to Ryerson student, Phoebe Heng. “I never would have thought to have connected immigration to the issue of trafficking,” she said.

Harsha Walia, a social activist from Vancouver, who was the fourth member of the panel, added to the discussion. Canadians have been misled to believe that they have a duty to save “brown women from brown men,” said Walia. She calls this the “white savior complex.”

Walia was in B.C five years ago when there was a police raid on several massage parlors.  She recalled how all the women were held in detention and were told that if they didn’t give up the names of their perpetrators that they would be deported. About 80 per cent of the women found in the raids were deported said Walia. Interviews with the victims however, Walia said, revealed that almost all the women in the raid wanted to stay in Canada.

“The Canadian state is the biggest trafficker,” said Walia.

Walia argued that anti-trafficking laws are hurting women more then they are helping them.  In an attempt to “protect women”, Walia said, the state is using anti-trafficking measures to shut down foreign workers.

“If we abolish national borders, migration [for foreign workers] would become safer in a heartbeat,” said Sharma.

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The Ryerson event drew a crowd of more than 200 people. Every single seat was filled in the lecture hall with teachers and students from both Ryerson and the University of Toronto. Human Trafficking: What’s Going On, was co-sponsored by the Law Research Centre at Ryerson and the Centre for Feminist Research at York University.

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