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Modern slavery and tourism: when holidays and human exploitation collide

The Cambodian Children’s Trust family preservation work keeps families together. Tara Winkler, Author provided

Holidays are a privilege that many who are fortunate to take them look forward to. They are an opportunity to indulge, relax and recharge – and what could be better than being able to do so while doing good?

But the costs of production of the tourist experience are often glossed over. And modern slavery practices are especially evident in the tourism supply chain in developing countries.

Desperate people

Modern slavery is described as the conduct of practices similar to slavery, including debt bondage and forced labour. The use of force, deception and the deprivation of freedom are common.

The links between modern slavery and the fashion and textiles industry, mining, agriculture and domestic work are well known. It’s common in developing countries where people are desperate and vulnerable to exploitation.

This is not to say that developed countries are immune. In Australia, a federal parliamentary committee is inquiring* into establishing a Modern Slavery Act. This follows the passing of the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Such moves are linked to growing calls for action against modern slavery in domestic and global supply chains.

In most developed countries, much less attention is given to modern slavery than elsewhere. This is particularly so in the case of developing countries where labour is cheap and exploitation underlies the production of goods and services consumed in developed countries.

According to the Global Slavery Index, in 2016 about 45.8 million people were subject to some form of modern slavery. Most of them are in developing countries where worker rights are poorly protected.

When it comes to international tourism, concerns over links with modern slavery have been mostly subdued. This occurs despite the push for more sustainable, resilient and responsible modes of tourism.

Tourism is often linked to sustainable economic development that can make communities better off. This is encouraged by governments keen to maximise tourist spending.

International tourism in developing countries is neither all good nor all bad. Beyond its potential to do good, however, tourism and its association with modern slavery is rarely highlighted.

In particular, little is made of the harsh conditions that many who service the industry tend to face. This is more apparent in some forms of tourism than others, and especially where worker rights and social justice concerns are systematically compromised.

Some of the strongest links between slavery and tourism are found in sex tourism, orphanage tourism and in the services supply chain.

Orphanage tourism

While the development of responsible tourism has improved traveller awareness of the need to “give back” to their hosts, it has also encouraged opportunists. The enormous growth of orphanage tourism in Southeast Asia is proof of this.

Globally, up to 8 million children live in institutions, but over 80% of these children have parents or family.

Orphanage tourism takes place when tourists visit orphanages and donate money and goods. The demand for “orphan experiences” often includes volunteering at residential care facilities and interacting with children. Children become tourist attractions and tourists become the agents for orphanages as business enterprises rather than as sites of care.

In academic terms, orphanage tourism sits under what is known as geographies of compassion. That is, tourist behaviour is guided by moral and ethical concerns that are largely focused on social justice motives.

The relationship between international tourists and orphans in developing countries is driven by a mix of clever marketing and appeals to the traveller’s good conscience. Marketing efforts offer to place tourists in orphanages for a few hours, a day or longer. Emotive images and persuasive language are used to promote orphanage visits, alongside enthusiastic testimonials from past visitors.

Good intentions, money and the desire to help are essential ingredients for the orphanage tourism industry. Usually, the traveller constructs a view of “the problem” where they are an important part of “the solution”. Tourists then inadvertently become agents in an exploitative business model that profits the orphanage owner while compromising the well-being of children.

Many argue that the “bad” orphanages, those run by unscrupulous operators who knowingly and systematically exploit children for profit, shouldn’t negate the work of the “good” orphanages. However, there is no such thing as a good orphanage – only best-practice child-care facilities. These are the ones that provide high-quality residential care.

Children below the age of 12 are still best off in family-based care and not in institutions. When orphanages are financially supported through donations and volunteer programs, the best interests of children are compromised.

In the worst cases, children are exploited through forced labour, enforced begging, human trafficking, or sex tourism. In other cases, exploitation occurs by way of forced interaction with volunteers, loss of rights to privacy and increased risk of physical and sexual abuse.

In coming to terms with the growth of orphanage tourism in developing countries, the usual absence of families and communities requires an urgent rethink. Instead of promoting the tourist as part of the solution, it should be emphasised that visits to orphanages very often lead to modern slavery conditions.

Shared responsibility for a solution

Stemming the tide of orphanage tourism requires collaboration and cooperation between national governments, non-government organisations and the tourism industry. Cross-border cooperation and a commitment at the supply and demand sides of the international tourism industry are required.

The solution lies in reducing tourist demand for orphanage experiences; children are not tourist attractions.

Along with government and industry, travellers have a huge responsibility. This includes ensuring that holidays are produced ethically and that the rights of producers are upheld.

2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The festering sore that is orphanage tourism requires urgent surgery. Children are some of the most vulnerable in society, and development that compromises their futures is futile.

Travellers, governments and the international tourism industry all bear responsibility. While there remains a demand for orphanage visits in developing countries and little is done to stop it, suppliers will emerge.

*The Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia is holding public hearings in Melbourne on August 1-2 and in Canberra on August 11.

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