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"What people wanted to share and what the law wanted to see were always different. I think back to that and that's sort of what motivates me to do a lot of the work I do now."

Elena Shih, Watson postdoctoral fellow

Who Are You Calling “Victim”?

The Complicated Reality Behind Trying to Do Good

February 5th, 2015

When Elena Shih meets me for tea under the trellis outside Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, even though we’re complete strangers, we erupt into an animated conversation about shopping and commodity chains. Electric, impassioned, and articulate, she’s someone you immediately want to be friends with, or have as a role model for your daughter. A coral-lipstick-sporting, transnational feminist, Fulbright scholar, and freshly minted PhD, Shih moved to Rhode Island from Los Angeles last fall to become a postdoctoral fellow at Watson. 

After all the research Shih has done on human trafficking and labor exploitation, and having worked as a vendor at fair trade fairs, I ask her how she can she purchase something in the US.

“It’s really hard shopping,” Shih says, “because the problem for someone who is only buying local is that everything is always sourced from somewhere. No matter how local you’re buying, it’s helpful to see how some piece of consumption is still connected to a global commodity chain.” 

We cover Wal-Mart (“one of the most profound things someone taught me about Wal-Mart is that salaries are so low that their workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart, so they’ve created this low-wage internal economy”), contemplate Madewell, and discuss Warby Parker (“there could be a more demonstrated need for glasses as opposed to perceived need like Tom’s Shoes. … We should think about the kinds of commodities we try to give in the name of development”). 

This leads Shih to the possible adverse affects of Tom’s Shoes’ “One for One” charitable shoe donation program, drawing from experience observing the effects of Nike corporate social responsibility gifting programs in rural China. “One: these products might crowd out local shoe markets. Two: the ways children are selected to receive these shoes may create jealousy… If you introduce a foreign product that wouldn’t necessarily exist otherwise, there’s always the unseen potential for envy or stigmatization from others within the community.”

“People say, ‘Your work is so depressing because you're telling people not to buy products that are supposed to be helpful,’” Shih adds. “I think we need to listen a little harder to what labor rights movements have been asking for decades.” 

Shih was born and raised in Queens. Her parents, a pharmacist/acupuncturist and an engineer, were both born in China, and emigrated to the US in the 1960s. All through school, including Hunter College High School, Shih played volleyball, which she credits with being her introduction to ethnography. On the court and at tournaments, she explains, “you’re exposed to immigrants and people from all different walks of life,” reflecting on her participation in the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament for many years.

She continued to play at Pomona College, where she first witnessed the racial politics of being Asian American in higher education. When she was a junior, Shih, an Asian Studies and Women’s Studies major, began interning at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center as a Mandarin Intake Counselor. There she noticed a discrepancy between real migration experiences and the legal perception of them.

“I was doing Mandarin translations, and you would hear people talk about their experience with migration with a lot of pride,” Shih recalls. “And you'd work with attorneys who were asked by courts to provide documentation of the abuse or violence that that they experienced. What people wanted to share and what the law wanted to see were always different. I think back to that and that's sort of what motivates me to do a lot of the work I do now.”

After college, Shih received a Fulbright to continue her studies in China at the Beijing University Center for Women’s Legal Aid, where she performed work similar to her internship.

“I wanted to see how they were dealing with the social and legal aspects of human trafficking. [But when] I arrived nobody wanted to talk about human trafficking,” Shih says, laughing. “I realized that was because there's always a local set of definitions and words that people use to describe the issues they're talking about. And ‘human trafficking’ was not the phrase they used.” 

Instead, she says, “they were talking about ‘exploitation’ of migrant women's work in the service and manufacturing industries and in domestic work. And while much of that labor exploitation may have matched the definitions of what internationally we call ‘trafficking,’ lawyers in China had no utility for that. There wasn't a Chinese trafficking law [in 2005]. ... That's the moment you realize you're this really brazen and obnoxious American who has arrived and you want to import all of these buzzwords that you've learned from media, film, TV, and books. … But I think that's been the best lesson: knowing that the premises you originally start with are usually wrong.”

At UCLA, where she pursued her PhD in sociology, Shih was fascinated by the jewelry being sold at anti-trafficking fairs in Southern California. “I was incredibly optimistic. Could jewelry be rehabilitative in some way?”

For her study, “The High Price of Freedom: Moral Economies of Low-Wage Women’s Work in the Transnational Anti-Human Trafficking Movement,” which is a chapter of her current book project, Shih conducted 30 months of ethnographic fieldwork with American Christian anti-trafficking organizations in China and Thailand.  She worked alongside “rehabilitated” victims of trafficking – women in the sex industry who are recruited to make jewelry that is shipped to the US and sold as fair-trade goods. She spent four hours a day “making jewelry, cooking, and participating in worship alongside the workers.” The rest of the day she spent helping the activists with administrative duties.  In addition to receiving a monthly salary for jewelry production, workers were required to sign contracts agreeing they would no longer sell sex, penalized for each minute they were late to church, and essentially paid for their wage labor alongside their worship. They earned wages that “were marginally higher than minimum-wage service-sector jobs in both China and Thailand.”

In her study, Shih notes the human traffic rescue industry’s “veneer of humanitarianism and protectionism profits from the labor of sex workers—who are labeled both offenders and victims,” and that “mandatory wage labor and housing are ironically parts of a sex worker’s path to ‘freedom.’” When given the definition of “trafficked,” which in Chinese means “kidnapped and sold,” the women she worked with didn’t identify with the term.

“Rather,” Shih writes, “they continually spoke of their experiences as commercial sex workers with dignity and as the proud choices of women workers living within the limits of their local economies and global capitalism.”

Shih seeks to eradicate “trafficking” as a buzzword, and refutes the idea that women and children are always “victims” – which only increases their vulnerability and perpetuates oppression. 

“Despite anti-trafficking vocational training programs,” Shih writes, “[these women] often have not gained substantial skills to increase their socio-economic position or to decrease their vulnerability. Then they get reabsorbed back into the low-wage migrant work force, leaving them open to the same vulnerabilities that allow the NGOs to label them victims of trafficking.”


It’s clear from her work that Shih believes in giving back to the communities that she studies. She has kept in touch with the people she’s worked with – many of them graduates or drop-outs of these “rehabilitation” programs—and has worked for many years on a public arts education project for ethnic minority, street youth, and refugee children on the China-Burma border.

I remark that it seems like empathy plays a part in Shih’s work, and I ask her, “How can you teach empathy?”

Shih answers: “I’m not sure. Maybe it’s by talking less, and listening more.… [Indian author] Arundhati Roy has a great quote: ‘There's really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’ All people have a voice. It’s just whether you’re listening to the structural power or to what people are actually saying. I think I’m really motivated by that.”

Shih plans on discussing the importance of considering privilege and responsibility while teaching the principles of community-based research to her students this semester, when she teaches Qualitative Methods for Development Studies.


When she’s not doing research and reading and writing about trafficking, one of Shih’s favorite things to do is schedule 20-hour layovers, where she’s left alone in a new city, whether it’s Seoul or Kuwait City or Berlin.

“I always have the best and wackiest times during those trips,” she says. “I’m all by myself and that’s why it’s so fun. You’re just plopped in this completely new place and if you’ve just come from doing fieldwork for weeks, you’re like ‘I just want to go home. Why did I make this awful decision?’ But I think that’s where the most growth happens – when you have to figure stuff out in a new place. That’s when you learn the most.”

 -- Jaime Lowe