walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

a detail from _Arrival City_ about slavery, and rambling about trafficking

A more complete review (in the sense of, I will have completed the book) will be forthcoming, hopefully. In the meantime, this caught my eye. About 12% of the way into the kindle edition (location 730 or thereabouts):

"Archana spends her nights curled on the polished marble living-room floor of a large middle-class apartment in Goregaon, a northwest Mumbai high-rise enclave. She is the live-in housemaid for a university-educated couple who work as composers in the Bollywood film industry; they have family roots in the same region of southern Maharashtra and found Archana through that network. Archana cooks, cleans, and maintains the house six days a week, sleeping across the room from the couple and waking before them to prepare their morning meal. [para break] In exchange for this, Archana is paid exactly nothing. Like many middle-class Indian couples, her employers keep her, in a vestige of the caste system, on a promise to ensure her urban welfare, plus some funds sent to her family to support them between harvests, but, more importantly, on a guarantee that they will pay her dowry and other costs when she marries a village boy, likely at 18. Dowry fees are a constant and agonizing source of worry for peasant farmers, most acutely in India but to a lesser extent throughout the developing world. A few decades ago, a small sum of cash and a cow may have sufficed, bu the urban revolution has placed fast-mounting obligations of cash and treasure on parents of girls. Officially, the couple say they are saving Archana's salary earnings on her behalf, and she eagerly embraces this arrangement, though her form of employment still falls within most accepted definitions of slavery."

Doug Saunders is telling this story in the context of how human networks (familial and other) connect villages to "arrival cities". Archana and two siblings were the first in their family to take the train into Mumbai in search of work and they did it because "a mysterious crop disease had ravaged the Kolhewadi rice harvest" three years earlier. A little math indicates that Archana was at most 15 and possibly younger when she entered the household where she is a maid in this story, which puts her firmly in the child labor category in the US. If you look at the helpful chart supplied by the UN to identify human trafficking:


it is pretty easy to show that Archana was harboured/received, in exchange for "payments" or "benefits", (in a way that arguably abused vulnerability), and you can see by her schedule that she's having to work pretty damn hard. If you trust Saunders, Archana's happy, presumably the couple is happy, Archana's parents (if they live) are happy she's not dead, her brother is elsewhere in the city and he hasn't pulled her out of this situation and his situation was at one point more dire so he's probably okay with it, too.

This is definitely a "compared to what" situation.

I think it's fair to say that everyone in the story (and everyone reading the story) would like Archana to have a long and prosperous life. From the perspective of a white, middle-aged woman who is a US citizen (me), the idea that this _girl_ is spending her teenage years working dawn to dusk 6 days a week so that someone will pay her dowry to get married at 18 is appalling. At the same time, however, I know a little too much about my family history (I did anyway, and all that time on ancestry.com and elsewhere just drove the point home over and over and over again) to truly believe that Archana's situation is one which she needs to be rescued from.

Here, really, is my problem with high level categories like "human trafficking" and the looser definitions of "slavery": in their most awful instantiations, we don't need those words to convey the horrors of what is being done, and you can find comparable horrors that don't meet those high level categories. Violence is bad. (This is a shorthand for "violent coercion for one's personal benefit is bad".) The threat of violence is bad, but not as bad. Paying someone to do something they wouldn't otherwise do is bad, but not _nearly_ as bad as violence or the threat of violence (hey, almost all of us had done things because our boss said we had to or we wouldn't keep the job), and someone making us work ridiculously hard because it was that or fail to make the rent is bad but again, not nearly as bad as violence or the threat of violence. Lumping all this together is Not Helpful.

The fraud/deception is an important, separate problem. If the Bollywood film couple fails to supply the promised dowry at 18, is _that_ a problem? Well, it sort of depends. If, say, they talk to Archana and work out some sort of deal where, instead, she goes to school and they pay the tuition, it's not what was promised but maybe it's equivalent and satisfactory to all parties. What if the Bollywood couple dies in a horrible commuter rail accident, leaving Archana with _precisely nothing_ to show for all her years of work (well, other than regular meals and a safe place to spend her days and nights and I'm pretty sure that's not nothing in Mumbai), unless they had the forethought to provide for her in a will or other way. But if, at 18, Archana's parents have lined up a village boy for her and the couple refuse to pay and kick her out to boot, then _that_ is a problem -- but it's not clear how calling that human trafficking or slavery is going to help. I would think handling that suing for breach of contract would be a better mechanism for ensuring Archana's married future.

There are all kinds of interpretations for all kinds of situations. I, personally, find the trafficking idea (and to a related extent, looser definitions of slavery) to be unhelpful. They engage the heart and the emotions but fail to provide a clear path to a solution (or even an improvement). Further, much of the revulsion harnessed by the idea of trafficking comes from sex work -- and I do not approve of people encouraging revulsion to sex work. That is _really_ not helpful to anyone. I suppose you could argue that at least some cops learned to quit blaming prostitutes, but we could have gotten to _that_ end point in a lot of less problematic ways. Even more of the revulsion is attached to hatred of People Not Like Us, people from somewhere else, people who are in trouble or unlucky and their trouble might contaminate us. If we just build a tall enough wall and check enough papers, we can keep them and all their problems away from us. Again, I don't find that helpful. At all.

I'll get into Saunders book in more detail later, but I'll note here that I have very mixed feelings about his opinions regarding appropriate policy for arrival cities. He's pretty firmly in the tear-the-bandage-off-fast camp when it comes to urbanization, and he recognizes that there are other options (in the present and in the past), I don't think he recognizes how powerful his linguistic group bias is.
Tags: not-a-book-review, politics
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.