Vulnerability in Domestic Discourses on Trafficking: Lessons from the Indian Experience


In recent years, rather than addressing the needs of sex workers themselves or of trafficked persons, international anti-trafficking law has been mobilised towards an ideological end, namely the abolition of sex work. The vulnerability of ‘third world’ female sex workers in particular has provided a potent image for justifying state intervention backed by the full force of the criminal law. Moral legitimacy has been afforded to this by a radical feminist discourse which views sex workers as nothing but hapless victims. Drawing on the work of Martha Fineman and legal realists like Robert Hale, this article redeploys vulnerability in trafficking debates to depart from its narrative of victimhood and to offer a renewed critique of liberal legalism, which has in the trafficking context been characterised by legal strategies of criminalisation and the attendant rescue and rehabilitation of trafficked persons. Specifically, it examines how three Indian social legislations regulating bonded labour, contract labour and inter-state migrant labour, and targeted at the domestic trafficking of men, conceptualise vulnerability in substantially different ways when compared to the 2000 Palermo Protocol on Trafficking (at least as it has been enforced to date). To the extent that these Indian laws construe the vulnerability of labour as systemic, trafficking is understood as a problem of labour migration to be addressed primarily by labour law. As such, this view of vulnerability, I argue, not only helps to de-exceptionalise trafficking as always equivalent to the trafficking of women for sex work, and therefore sex work, but also to substantively address the vulnerability of both male and female workers in other labour markets.

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Correspondence to Prabha Kotiswaran.

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Kotiswaran, P. Vulnerability in Domestic Discourses on Trafficking: Lessons from the Indian Experience. Fem Leg Stud 20, 245–262 (2012).

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  • India
  • Labour trafficking
  • Coercion
  • Exploitation