Nomi Network: Hypocrisy of Fair Trade rescue of third world sex slaves?

Posted on October 3, 2010




A funny play on words?


Interesting use of Fair Trade, with some assumptions in their platform that irritate me –

Nomi Network seeks to empower former sex workers by giving them jobs as crafts workers (creating handmaid fashion items such as purses and scarves), and selling their products with socially conscious branding in the developed world.

This social enterprise is named after Nomi, a Thai sex slave, who according to the website’s intro video, developed mental disability as a result of her work, and now will be in rehabilitation for the rest of her life.

”There are more slaves today than at any point in human history,” Ben Skinner, the author of A Crime So Monstrous, states at the beginning of the Nomi video. ”Slaves are those forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.”

The violence that Skinner refers to here, is the supposed explicit violence of pimps and traffickers, who take poor girls against their will to work as prostitutes in a place far from home. These traffickers are presumed to threaten the girls with violence should they choose to disobey.

However, there is a more subtle form of structural violence that grows with unchecked global Capitalism, and the power disparities of MNCs between foreign corporation and local workers. The structural violence of global inequality compels people all over the globe to work at subsistence wage for survival, barely meeting their everyday needs. The social inequity that is augmented about by the growth of our current model of global Capitalism, actually fuels this violence by creating wage slaves, and perhaps creating the conditions that force these girls or their families to send females into the sex industry.

Nomi Network’s abolitionist perspective on third world prostitution looks only at the symptoms of a greater social problem. It fails to address the fact that for many girls and their families, sex work constitutes that best opportunity that is available to them, and especially in Thailand, many parents sell their daughters into the sex trade with hopeful promises of a better life. (Global Women, Barbara Ehrenreicht and Arlie Hoschschild, ed.)

The question of sex slavery contains complexities that are left unaddressed by this benign ethical-consumerist model. Do these crafts labors pay as much as sex work pays these girls? Do all the girls who are ‘rescued’ from their employment consistently prefer working as low-paid crafts workers over sex work? (The assumption, of course, is that noone on Earth would ever want to be in sex work, an assumption that should be questioned, according to research by Kempadoo and Dozema.) How do they choose the girls who work for them, and how are these girls given a guarantee of survival wages? Who is left out? Who is targeted? What happens to the girls that work for Nomi? Do they all succeed in staying out of the sex industry for life, or do some go back at some point? How much more does Nomi pay more per piece for labor than other factories in the locality where they are situated?

As a former employee of a fair trade organization in Guatemala, I have mixed feelings about Fair Trade. I believe that the model has good intentions and does good work, but I think a lot of specific conditions that are invisible to the public eye must be met in order to ensure that the work is effective in its goals. Among these conditions are the difference between Fair Trade and other factory work, and how the pity model of ethical consumerism is presented to laborers and buyers, whether there is integrity in presentation between pitch and reality.

Fair Trade, the Social Ventureship model of Capitalism with a kind heart, fueled by wealthy and ‘socially conscious‘ consumers in the first world, may help alleviate the suffering of some who are deeply exploited in this system of great inequality, but it does not change the structure that causes that inequality, rather it perpetuates it. The strictly optional, feel-good model of luxury Capitalism, as only a niche market not a means to address greater structural problems within global trade, is a form of charity that is not strong enough to create deep, pervasive social change.

What would be a more interesting use of Fair Trade to help sex workers in the third world? One that would be far less glamorous in the world of philanthropy and first world yoga moms?

How about ensuring Fair Trade of sex itself? How about working within the policy structures of the ubiquitous sex industry in Thailand to create brothels that treat their laborers fairly, help them with education and future employment elsewhere if they choose, allow them maximum choice and ensure their safety? This proposition goes against our basic assumptions about sex work and churns the stomach. However, sex tourism is a profitable industry in Thailand and that is why the government turns an unseeing face. Rescuing a few girls from oppressive sex work does not change the system itself. For many Thai girls, sex work is a choice that is most empowering within a global structure of vast inequality. What is most hurtful for these sex workers is the social stigma against the trade, and fickle, hypocritical, and exploitative law enforcement, that makes working in the industry a dangerous and shameful endeavor, perfect conditions for criminal pimps and traffickers (some of whom are government officials) to prey upon. (Kempadoo, Dozema 2005)

The very globalization that brings Fair Trade social ventures into Thailand is the same economic force that brings sex tourists to the country, and both operate with vast power disparities between consumers and producers. Perhaps we should question the use of the current model of global Capitalism to merely alleviate a problem that it itself created?