A couple of weeks ago Somaly Mam resigned from the anti-human-trafficking foundation that used to bear her name. (Apparently, it’s changing its branding from the Somaly Mam Foundation to just SMF.) It turns out she had been lying about important parts of her life story, including the part about being sold into forced prostitution. She also claimed to have rescued young women who told harrowing stories of sexual slavery, and a lot of that turned out to be lies as well, as recounted in a Newsweek cover story by Simon Marks:
Interviews with Mam’s childhood acquaintances, teachers and local officials in the village where she grew up contradict important, lurid details in her autobiography. Many of the villagers in Thloc Chhroy say they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “Grandfather,” the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her or the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.
Not even Mam can keep the story straight. In February 2012, while speaking at the White House, she said she was sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade inside a brothel. On The Tyra Banks Show, she said it was four or five years in the brothel. Her book says she was trafficked when she was “about 16 years old.”
Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.
Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.”
In light of these revelations, the cover of that edition of Newsweek asks the question,
Somaly Mam saved countless girls in Cambodia. Does it matter that parts of her story aren’t true?
Anne Elizabeth Moore provides the answer to that question in her piece at Salon (Yes, it does.) and along the way she touches on an important truth: Small-time criminals break the rules. The biggest criminals make the rules.
By way of illustration, one of the classic failures of the free market occurs when businesses collude to gain monopoly power over their customers. This can happen when a group of suppliers agree to divide up the market between them, or when companies form a cartel in which they agree to gang up on customers rather than competing against each other. By working together instead of against each other, businesses can extract a lot more money from their customers than they would if they competed in the free market.
These sorts of trade-restraining deals are not easy to pull off, however. For one thing, they’re pretty much illegal in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Justice has an Antitrust Division which enforces the laws against cartels and monopolies.
Cartels are also difficult to operate in the real world. Even if they’re legal, the members of the cartel usually figure out very quickly that if everyone else is committed to high prices or low production, they can greatly increase their market share by offering more product at lower prices. Furthermore, new businesses will spring up to take advantage of the high prices by offering the same services as existing companies, but at a discount, so they can grab some market share. For these reasons, it’s not uncommon for cartels to collapse almost immediately into a competitive race to the bottom.
At least that’s the case when the cartel members are the kind of people you read about in newspaper stories — shady characters meeting in smoky back rooms and Las Vegas hotels to rig bids, fix prices, and divide up markets. These guys are small-time monopolists, or at they very least they’re inexperienced at it.
The serious, experienced, big-money cartels don’t have to hide from the government and worry about who might be cheating. They have a much better strategy for monopolization that gets around anti-trust laws and prevents cheating: They get the government itself to create and enforce the cartel.
If taxi company owners tried to get together to artificially limit the number of taxis in operation to drive up prices, it would never work. For one thing, they’d be prosecuted for anti-trust violations. But probably even before government investigators figured out what they were up to, their cartel would be undermined by new taxi companies created by people who noticed the high prices and decided they wanted to get in on the action. They would quickly bid down prices and compete away most of the monopoly profits.
On the other hand, if the taxi companies can get the city government to artificially limit the number of taxis through a medallion licensing system, then the antitrust lawyers at the DOJ would ignore their arrangement, and they would be able to get the city police department to enforce their cartel by ticketing or arresting unlicensed cabbies. It’s a very sweet deal, and it’s the reason taxi medallions often trade for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Similarly, if hospital operating corporations in a state colluded to raise prices by limiting the availability of hospital beds and facilities, there would be hell to pay. Reporters would investigate them, Congress would launch hearings, and the DOJ Antitrust Division would land on them like a ton of bricks. But when hospitals get health care agencies in 35 states to require a “Certificate of Need” — demonstrating that there is “unmet need” in the market — before new hospitals can be built or existing hospitals can be expanded, the DOJ and Congress and most of the journalists remain silent about it, and hospitals continue to earn huge profits.
Of course, nobody involved ever admits that these laws are about increasing profits for those who are politically well-connected. There’s usually some pretense that the laws are promoting the public good. Taxi medallion laws are usually sold to the public as protecting consumers from unscrupulous cab operators or reducing taxi congestion in downtown areas. The hospital “Certificate of Need” rules are supposed to prevent expensive and wasteful “excess capacity” that somehow drives up health care costs.
In a similar way, at least some of the ongoing moral panic about “human trafficking” seems to be a pretense to hide less worthy motives. To be sure, human trafficking is a real problem, and organizations like SMF and other anti-trafficking NGOs do rescue some people from bondage. But as Marks made clear, there were a lot of lies, and as Moore makes clear, there’s more going on:
I visited one such NGO in Phnom Penh in January — not run by Mam, but built on the attention she’s brought to the issue since 2007. What I saw was not shocking: totally normal Cambodian women in a large room, sewing apparel. But it wasn’t social services, either: It was a garment factory. […]
Ending deeply embedded misogynistic practices, including both sex trafficking, which is likely rarer than Mam admits, and the policies supposedly waging war against it, is not an effortless gig. I’ve nonetheless heard several students expressing the desire to get into the brothel-busting game themselves. Listen: I spent seven years researching and doing work in Cambodia, made concerted efforts to learn the language, developed a strong stomach and reliable sources, and honed my skills in investigative reporting before I could even understand what, really, anti-human trafficking NGOs do. What they do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.
[…] Massive strikes in recent years have seen demand grow for an increase in pay, although other jobs for women remain few and unregulated. Among them, work in the sex industry is both reliable and flexible enough for, say, working moms. […] Most women in Cambodia live under conditions of poverty and desperation, and the garment industry’s insistent refusal to meet living-wage standards ensures this will continue for some time. Still, garment workers know an entire international trade system relies on their willing participation, which was how they built such a strong showing in the last elections. The big brands know it too, which is why the Nike Foundation funds Half the Sky — as do other multinationals that both enforce, and rely on, women’s desperate poverty around the world.
What anti-trafficking NGOs are saving women from, in other words, is a life outside the international garment trade, which, according to folks who sell us our clothes, is no kind of life at all — even though folks in those jobs tell me they can barely survive. About one-seventh of the world’s population of women works in the garment industry, which very rarely pays more than half a living wage (including to folks who work fast fashion retail in U.S. urban centers). This helps keep women in poverty around the globe.
In other words, the human traffickers that SMF and the other NGO’s are fighting, the guys who grab children off the streets, who smuggle them across borders in containerized shipping, who operate slave brothels, they’re like the business owners meeting in back rooms: They’re the little guys. The amateurs.
The serious professional human traffickers in the garment industry don’t need to do any of that. They’ve co-opted governments to steer women into their industry, and they fund NGOs that capture those who try to escape and re-educate them for garment work, all while claiming to be “rescuing girls.” This is how the serious human traffickers get things done. They turn their crimes into government policy and into respectable-seeming social welfare organizations.