Framing the Mother Tac : the racialised, sexualised and gendered politics of modern slavery in Australia

Macioti, P. G., Aroney, Eurydice, Bennachie, Calum, Fehrenbacher, Anne E., Giametta, Calogero, Hoefinger, Heidi, Mai, Nicola and Musto, Jennifer (2020) Framing the Mother Tac : the racialised, sexualised and gendered politics of modern slavery in Australia. Social Sciences, 9(11), e192. ISSN (print) 2076-0760


Centred on the slavery trial “Crown vs. Rungnapha Kanbut” heard in Sydney, New South Wales, between 10 April and 15 May 2019, this article seeks to frame the figure of the “Mother Tac” or the “mother of contract”, also called “mama tac” or “mae tac”—a term used amongst Thai migrants to describe a woman who hosts, collects debts from, and organises work for Thai migrant sex workers in their destination country. It proposes that this largely unexplored figure has come to assume a disproportionate role in the “modern slavery” approach to human trafficking, with its emphasis on absolute victims and individual offenders. The harms suffered by Kanbut’s victims are put into context by referring to existing literature on women accused of trafficking; interviews with Thai migrant sex workers, including Kanbut’s primary victim, and with members from the Australian Federal Police Human Trafficking Unit; and ethnographic field notes. The article unveils how constructions of both victim and offender, as well as definitions of slavery, are racialised, gendered, and sexualised and rely on the victims’ subjective accounts of bounded exploitation. By documenting these and other limitations involved in a criminal justice approach, the authors reveal its shortfalls. For instance, while harsh sentences are meant as a deterrence to others, the complex and structural roots of migrant labour exploitation remain unaffected. This research finds that improved legal migration pathways, the decriminalisation of the sex industry, and improved access to information and support for migrant sex workers are key to reducing heavier forms of labour exploitation, including human trafficking, in the Australian sex industry.

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