In a statement before a judge about her court-ordered conservatorship, pop icon Britney Spears likened her situation to a form of human trafficking.
So is it?
U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or to work against their will.
We don’t know the full extent of Spears’ situation and cannot definitively say whether or not it amounts to trafficking. Nor does it appear – at least from Spears’ statement – that she was compelled to provide sex acts in exchange for something of value. But the degree of financial and personal control Spears described resembles the forms of control and coercion tactics used by traffickers in situations of labor trafficking.
This is not as unique a situation as it may seem. Traffickers prey on vulnerable people. In the United States, recent immigrants are particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking because of the ease with which traffickers can control them through threats of deportation. The second most common vulnerability to labor trafficking is having some kind of disability including, but not limited to, mental and physical health concerns and substance use issues. Exploiters defraud people struggling with these conditions with promises of good jobs or safe places to live, or threaten them with further losses of freedom and rights if they try to change their situation.
If Spears didn’t necessarily know the official terminology to attach to the abuse she was experiencing, she is not alone. While sex trafficking has gained some attention in recent years, labor trafficking remains misunderstood and too often overlooked.
Based on the limited information available, here are some of the parallels between Spears’ situation, as described in her statement, and how labor trafficking situations play out in the United States:
- Taking advantage of legal loopholes: Under the rules of Spears’ conservatorship, everything Spears alleges her team and family did was technically legal. Often, traffickers work within legal boundaries to exploit their victims. Whether it’s prison labor for profit or the lack of visa portability in temporary work visas, the technical legality of something does not necessarily mean that it can’t or won’t lead to exploitation or trafficking.
- Exploitation of mental illnesses and/or disabilities: In the mid-2000s, Spears experienced very public mental health struggles that led to her father taking control as her conservator in 2008. Since then, her father has been granted the power to make decisions on her behalf while profiting from her career. In her statement, Spears referenced feeling like she would be punished if she didn’t attend rehabilitation programs or rehearsals. There have been multiple documented trafficking cases of people with disabilities, and those with mental illnesses are also increasingly vulnerable to victimization. As was the case for Spears, it is not uncommon for individuals with disabilities and/or mental illnesses to rely on a caregiver to meet their basic needs, and this caregiver can take advantage of this dependency to force them to work.
- Physical and emotional isolation: In her statement, Spears referenced not being able to see her friends (physical isolation) and expressed feeling “left out and alone” (emotional isolation). A key method employed by traffickers involves isolating their victims from family, friends, or other external resources that may provide them with support. By making their victims entirely dependent on them, traffickers can continue to maintain control.
- Constant Surveillance: While giving her statement, Spears discussed living in her home with nurses, security personnel, and other staff who constantly monitored her and denied her privacy – going as far as to watch her change. Surveillance is another key method that traffickers use to control their victims. By keeping a close eye on their whereabouts and interactions with external parties, traffickers can make it harder for their victims to ask for help or leave.
- Withholding of money or identity documents: Spears claimed that she did not have access to her credit card, cash, or passport. She also stated that if she refused to attend therapy sessions, she would be threatened with not being able to access her own money to go on vacation. The withholding of documents or pay are very common in labor trafficking situations as a way to keep victims in the situation out of fear that they could lose their documents or never come back to claim what they are owed.
- Coercive Contracts: In her statement, Spears recounted a “threatening and scary” encounter where she was handed a piece of paper to sign by her management to agree to go on tour in 2018, despite the fact that she did not want to go. In trafficking situations, contracts can be a big part of how victims are coerced into staying in their situations. This is often something we see in cases involving migrant visa workers who come to the United States on contract-based jobs. Whether victims sign a contract upfront that is not in a language they understand, or are threatened or coerced into signing a contract without reading it out of fear of losing their jobs – this is a key method for traffickers to control their victims.
While we await the decision in Spears’ most recent hearing, reading and hearing about her experience in her own words highlights the importance of listening to survivors and provides an opportunity to reflect and educate ourselves on what labor trafficking looks like.