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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Price of Freedom: Moral and Political Economies of the Global Anti-Trafficking Movement

  • Author(s): Shih, Elena
  • Advisor(s): Lee, Ching Kwan
  • et al.

The global concern around human trafficking has provoked a transnational justice movement formally spearheaded in 2000 by the passing of the United Nations Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. In 2008, the People's Republic of China and the Kingdom of Thailand introduced landmark policies that scripted the international language of human trafficking into their domestic legal frameworks. However, the difference in state-society relationships between post-socialist authoritarian China and free market democratic Thailand create a theoretically compelling comparison to answer my central research question: How do transnational social movements establish, institutionalize, and bridge power over relatively autonomous political authorities, markets, and over movement subjects? How do different factions of the movement mobilize resources in relation to the state and the market and how does the nature of institutional embeddedness affect whether they succeed, according to their stated objectives, or to the perceptions of their subjects?

Based on 40 months of ethnographic participant observation with an anti-trafficking evangelical Christian social enterprise and global governance project in each country, this dissertation argues that despite global justice goals, faith-based and secular anti-trafficking organizations reproduce women's global subordination in different ways. American evangelical Christian rescue groups offer vocational training in jewelry making as alternative employment to sex work, and sell this jewelry as a slave-free commodity in the United States. The labor processes of vocational training are unique in Beijing and Bangkok due to disparate political economic circumstances in each country: vocational training in China embodies the character of the authoritarian state, while the working conditions in Thailand resemble those of free market firms.

In the Chinese secular case, state control emerges as the primary mechanism of anti-trafficking intervention through the creation of a government ministry to address human trafficking. Global governance institutions like the United Nations must work exclusively through selective partnerships with Chinese government organs, which causes the transnational movement to strengthen state control over labor, gender, and migrant rights. In Thailand's free market and democratic monarchy, international pressures to forge an aggressive anti-trafficking response to sex and labor trafficking have resulted in a multi-tiered rescue industry involving the private sector, NGOs, transnational advocacy networks, and new government anti-trafficking entities. The transnational rescue industry in Thailand similarly subjects low wage women workers to new and unregulated forms of scrutiny, surveillance and forced detention alongside the government's support of sex tourism and aquaculture exports as primary engines of growth. Overall, the transnational anti-trafficking movement has embodied the characteristics of authoritarian state power in China, and the free market in Thailand.

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