Migrant sex workers and their supporters cause a 'Traffic-Jam' at the Australian launch of American anti-trafficking group

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(c) Na Mon Cheung

On Sunday 15 June, 2014, Traffic Jam, an Internet based anti-trafficking organisation, with a seemingly strong affiliation with the American based A 21 Campaign (A21) , attempted to launch their new website in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern. To the surprise and ill-disguised antipathy of the organisers, a group of sex worker activists, led by migrant sex workers, Na Mon Cheung and Julie Kim of the National Migration Project, gatecrashed the event, refusing to pay the AUD $25 entrance fee, and demanded stage time to speak to the audience about trafficking issues.

 

The protesters carried placards referring to the recent expose of Somaly Mam, an anti-trafficking ‘superstar’, whose shameful use of fabrication, deception and fiction was directly responsible for the harassment, abuse and workplace raids of hundreds of Cambodian sex workers, under the misguided anti-trafficking policies that Mam’s powerful organisation, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), were directly responsible for implementing and participating in.  

From what little is known about Traffic Jam, they are a relatively new organisation, who has ostensibly recognised the funding opportunities open to anti-trafficking organisations, particularly through resourcing by evangelical Christian Churches who are keen to believe deceptive, racist rhetoric about the working conditions of Asian sex workers.

A21 believes “trafficking mainly happens in the sex industry”, and their organisation claims to “provide psychological support and retraining programme for the victims of trafficking”. Traffic Jam works with A21 by facilitating a website where “vulnerable individuals moving to Australia can register their details in the knowledge that our committed team will check on them to ensure they are safe, well and here for their intended purpose.” A cynical analysis of their mission statement ostensibly reads that well-meaning Christians undertaking “spot-checks” on a person who has migrated to Australia to ensure that they are no longer engaging in sex work!

The A 21 Campaign, whose core purpose involves “‘strengthening governments and policies around human trafficking in other countries”, were lauded by Traffic Jam for their support of the event and for providing both a sensationalist “sex slave” style documentary and a young, female, Caucasian American ‘expert’ speaker who relayed stories of sexual exploitation, deception, coercion and eventual redemption upon exiting the sex industry. In effect, her hyperbole involved nothing relating to actual sex work and provided yet another example of the confabulation between sex work and sexual exploitation. It was at this stage that a group of sex worker activists stormed the stage and demanded to speak to the stereotypes, myths and lies, Traffic Jam had perpetuated throughout their presentation.

A sex worker activist stated that, “We do not support your activities and we need you to realize that what you think are well intentioned, anti trafficking interventions have affected all sex workers negatively and has created a discriminatory environment for all sex workers, in particular by stigmatising and creating negative myths and stereotypes around migrant sex workers as victims of sex slavery or trafficking. At this launch you actually claimed that there are ‘South-East Asian girls’ who are chained to beds and forced to service 100 men every day! This is not physically possible, and the perpetuation of a highly racist stereotype. Using these sorts of shock-value tactics might make you money, but you deny sex workers any agency as workers with labour rights”.

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(c) Na Mon Cheung

Although the Traffic Jam event attracted 30- 40 participants; once migrant sex workers and their allies took the stage, their interactions and exchanges with the audience seemed to far out-weigh any of the previous engagement the audience had with the anti-trafficking speakers. Similarly, the guerrilla-style sex worker take-over of the stage outlasted the initial time allotted to the Traffic Jam event. According to a sex worker spokesperson “It was like a ‘Trafficking 101’ sensitisation session. No one really knew anything about the issue, except what they’d seen on the media, and once they had the opportunity to speak with an actual migrant sex worker about our experiences, skills, and lives- they realized that they were just the same as us.”

 

Despite the Traffic Jam event allegedly celebrating the launch of a website where “survivors of sexual slavery” can register their details upon migrating to Australia; at the time of writing I was not able to find an active website. In communicating with the Migration Team since the event, I asked for their opinions about what is problematic with anti- trafficking organisations, such as Traffic Jam and A21, and why anti-trafficking policies don't work?

“Those anti trafficking organisation are not peer based organisation and they do not promote sex workers rights. They do fund-raising and they claim women and children are at risk of being trafficked to the sex industry without any research, evidence or consultation from sex worker rights organisations. Anti- trafficking interventions have been used broadly as an excuse to stigmatise and promote myths about the sex industry, sex workers, migrants, children and women .Travel for work is a tradition of giving opportunity to people who are willing to change their circumstances and live the life that they wish for, or to achieve to attempt a personal goal. However, anti trafficking activities have become a multi-million dollar industry that exploits our rights, victimises and gives bad names to sex workers, migrant people, women and children, all just to gain public interest for funding. To discriminate against, or criminalise any aspect of the migrant population and the sex industry will not stop any trafficking, it will only push those populations who want to migrant for work to seek a third party to obtain a visa in order to move around to work. This is what really puts people at risk of exploitation and isolation; undocumented migrants or migrants without the correct visa will do almost anything to avoid being raided or rescued- usually because they have invested so much money in travelling without proper documents and because basically a migrant has to engage with underground businesses. Those anti-trafficking organisations have made it even more difficult to support those people who really have been trafficked and also affect sex workers negatively.  The best way to prevent trafficking should be to promote freedom of movement, to create a discrimination free environment for people who come from any mode of transport to Australia, to provide fair treatment to obtain work visa and give the rights to people to choose the occupation they want. As well as give sex workers rights to speaks for ourselves instead of our voices being represented by other people, especially those who make laws and policy about us and our occupation without even consulting us!”

Special thank you to Na Mon Cheung for organising this action and for providing her time for this interview and photographs.