Commonly, human trafficking conjures the image of someone in the sex industry rather than a worker at a meat packing plant in Iowa, says Dr. Yvonne Zimmerman.
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, delivered “Practicing Values: Progressive Christianity and the Movement to End Human Trafficking,” on Sept. 22 as part of the Sister Ruth Agnes Ahlers Lecture Series at Briar Clif University.
She posed this question: Does progressive Christianity have anything distinct theologically or unique ethically and morally to bring to the issue of human trafficking or to anti-trafficking activism and advocacy?
“By enslaved, I mean two things. First, the inability to leave a situation without fear of violence and secondly, being paid nothing or next to nothing for any duration of time."
— Dr. Yvonne Zimmerman
“Now, this may not strike you at first as an interesting or particularly important question. After all, to many people who care about the issue of human trafficking, it is so bad and so wrong that anything, literally anything we do to resist or end it is a good thing,” said Zimmerman, author of "Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex and Human Trafficking."
In a nutshell, Zimmerman said, human trafficking refers to the processes by which individuals become enslaved.
“By enslaved, I mean two things. First, the inability to leave a situation without fear of violence and secondly, being paid nothing or next to nothing for any duration of time,” she explained.
Commonly, the speaker noted, the image of someone in the sex industry comes to mind rather than a worker at a meat packing plant in Iowa, a person who picks tomatoes in the fields of North Carolina or factory worker.
Various factors have led to this narrow definition of human trafficking. For instance, by the late 1990s, she said, some lawmakers argued that “low-wage sweatshop issues and other issues of labor exploitation must not cloud the issue of human trafficking, which they insisted was essentially about the sexual exploitation of women and girls.”
In the end, the speaker said the human trafficking legislation that did pass – The Trafficking Victims Protection Act – included, but was not limited to, sex trafficking. Any labor or services compelled by fraud, force or coercion were considered human trafficking.
Despite the broad definition of the act, Zimmerman said implementation of the federal law has focused mainly on sex trafficking. At the grassroots level, images of women and children in sexual bondage persist as the primary imagery for understanding trafficking.
“There is something gratifying about standing with firm, moral clarity against sex trafficking that gets us at a deep emotional level,” Zimmerman said.
At the same time, partly driven by the mindset that hard work is good and is an American value, she said, culturally Americans are ambivalent about undercompensated work.