Search This Blog

Sunday 23 June 2013

Review: Hsiao-Hung Pai, Invisible - Britain's Migrant Sex Workers

I greatly admired Nick Broomfield's film Ghosts based on the researches of Hsiao-Hung Pai into the lives (and deaths) of Chinese migrant workers in the UK and on that basis bought her new book on migrant sex workers in Britain.

There have always been migrant workers, legal and illegal, voluntary and coerced. Probably the majority of them have always been poorly paid and badly treated. Sex work differs from factory or restaurant work - it gives some migrant workers the chance to be relatively well paid and badly treated. 

Hsiao-Hung Pai works undercover as a Maid - a Housekeeper - in downmarket brothels in London and grim provincial towns like Portsmouth. As an employee she has to deal with aggressive and unpleasant bosses and ditto customers. In between, she tries to find out the life stories of the women providing sexual services. Some are illegal migrants (all the Chinese women)  some are legal, notably women from Poland . A few have been indisputably trafficked and coerced - the story of a Lithuanian woman, Galina, is particularly shocking. Some are pimped in more or less coercive ways. But probably the majority have gravitated towards sex work from low-paid jobs in food processing or restaurants. Very rarely do they have a good command of English, which is one reason I guess why they do not use the Internet and work independently as escorts. Whether they make good money depends a bit on the whims of their employers, a bit on the location of the brothel, a bit on whether or not it is targetted by the police, and a lot on whether there is a pimp skimming their earnings. But, overall, they seem to do better than they did as low paid workers in other sectors.

"Doing better" is defined by their ability to remit funds to their families back home. The most striking thing about Hsiao-Hung Pei's characters is that they are not young women. They are mostly in their thirties, often married, and generally with children and parents back home. Eventually, they hope to go home themselves. Hsia-Hung Pai doesn't point out that in the case of illegal migrants, this is easier said than done: if you don't have a passport or a passport with a valid visa, then you can only exit the UK as you entered it - illegally - unless you manage to get caught and deported. (I am curious to know: What happens if you walk into a police station, declare yourself an illegal immigrant and ask to be deported? And suppose you offer to pay the regular air fare?)

The pressure to remit money can be quite strong. In some cases, this derives from and extends a cultural expectation that adult children should look after their parents. In some cases - and this is me speaking not the author -  it just looks like another form of coercion. It is certainly not a benign relationship and, ironically, there are no doubt cases where the people back home are living easier lives on their remittances than those who are doing the remitting.

Hsai-Hung Pai's book is not about sex and doesn't really address the specificity of sex work except insofar as she points out that it isolates women from their own migrant communities, since it is rarely if ever something which can be discussed. This is clear, for example, in the case of Beata, a Polish Catholic who can't talk about what she is doing with other Poles and instead, in one of the book's poignant episodes, ends up discussing the ethics of sex work with an Ecuadorean Catholic punter (pp 245 - 50).

The book is quite readable. It's not theoretically strong or analytically focussed and it won't satisfy those who have strong anti -sex work agendas. Hsiao-Hung Pai tells a sympathetic, human interest story in the way John Berger and Jean Mohr did many years ago in their book on migrant male workers, A Seventh Man. One of the things that has changed since then is the large proportion of migrant workers who are now women.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Review: Brian Jones, Failing Intelligence

"We know that he [ Saddam Hussein ] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons ..." 
Tony Blair on America's NBC News, 3 April 2002, quoted page 64
This book is at turns ludicrous and compelling. It would provide a very good basis for a seminar course on the "Whitehall" relationship between British civil servants and politicians and equally for a course on the organisation of British Intelligence activities.

Brian Jones was - until his early retirement - a middle ranking British civil servant on the Defence Intelligence Staff of the Ministry of Defence,  primarily tasked with analysing intelligence information on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons threats from possible enemies, including Iraq. Because he was located in the War Ministry, his immediate responsibility was to make assessments of Battlefield Relevance - what non-conventional weapons were or might be available for use against British troops in a given theatre of war and what precautions would need to be taken against them.

As a civil servant, he turns up at the office, works his hours, catches the train home, takes days off and goes on holiday. This routine is uninterrupted in the build up to the Iraq War and so quite often in the book he has to tell us that he wasn't there during such-and-such developments:
I was unaware of any of these events when I returned to work on Wednesday 18 September 2002. I was surprised to be told that work on the Prime Minister's dossier had dominated my staff's activities in my absence. 'All hell' had broken loose at the beginning of the month with the requirment for the dossier to be written and published within three weeks (page 79)

With the benefit of hindsight on a reckless and catastrophic invasion of a country which posed no actual threat, this reads as ludicrous. But it marks one of the differences between a civil servant and a politician who would never say, "Well, it was my day off when that happened".

Brian Jones also comes across as a pedant and a bore - but that's how it should be, That Was His Job and he did it conscientiously. On the evidence available to him, he was - like the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, who famously said it to Donald Rumsfeld's face - unconvinced. He is at the opposite pole from Tony Blair, whose sense of divine mission allowed him (and not just in relation to Iraq) to be careless of detail and too fast to judgement. At one point, Jones rightly remarks that he thereby risked failing in his Duty of Care to British troops - not to expose them recklessly to danger.

It also places Jones at odds with MI6, the most politicised of the intelligence agencies, which - on Jones's and other accounts - saw its task as to help the government of the day succeed in making its case for its war policy and for rallying support (including Parliamentary support) for participation in the American invasion of Iraq. Hopes of personal career advancement clearly influenced some individuals involved. Jones summarises the conflict on page 206 saying that his own department [ie, it's boss]:

was persuaded to ignore the advice of its own experts in favour of whispered reassurances that everything was in order from an ascendant MI6
It is in this area that there are some really interesting insights into the complexity of the relations between intelligence gathering, intelligence assessment (is it reliable? and so on), intelligence analysis (building up an overall picture) and political judgement (what shall we do with what we know?). The whole business reads like an advanced course in Modal Logic, seeking to clarify the relationship between possibly, could, would, might, may, probably, certainly ...

Two ministers in Tony Blair's government resigned in order to oppose the war against Iraq: Robin Cook and John Denham. Elizabeth Wilmshurst at the Foreign Office resigned in order to avoid being party to the War Crime of aggression (she isn't mentioned in this book - her resignation letter can be found online). Dr David Kelly gave unauthorised briefings to journalists and committed suicide. Brian Jones wrote a Memo. to his boss (who was furious that he did) and as a result ended up a public figure and author of this book.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Review: Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets

It took me a long time to read this 350 + page book. It's not a gripping tale, but the outcome of an academic engagement with the history of British intelligence begun at the University of Cambridge under the (doctoral) supervision of Christopher Andrew. (In the past Cambridge bred spies; now it studies them).

There is a focus - the role of British intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 / SIS, GCHQ and so on) in the final decades of the British Empire when colonies turned into independent states. There is a thesis - those agencies often enough smoothed the path to independence and, despite everything (in some cases a Lot of everything), helped create at least a semblance of working relations between the United Kingdom and former colonies - working relations symbolised by the fact that most colonies on leaving the Empire chose to join the Commonwealth. But this does not create a single narrative. Rather, we are presented with a large number of thumbnails from which we don't get a feel for what the day to day operations of the Intelligence agencies involved. I feel I ended up knowing a little about a lot of colonial histories, including lots that I certainly did not know before.

In a couple of cases the thumbnails are quite expanded, as in discussions of the end of the Palestinian Mandate and the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya and these were the most interesting sections of the book.

Walton takes some trouble to explain what distinguishes the Intelligence agencies of the UK from a secret police. The core criterion is the fact that our agencies do not have powers of arrest and imprisonment. Their job is to collect and analyse intelligence and pass it on - and in good time, if it concerns specific threats. MI5 which took the lead role in intelligence work in the colonies, worked very hard to get this model adopted in colonies becoming independent.

It helped that in several instances MI5 regarded local Nationalist leaders,like Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, as less threatening than did British politicians who in the 1950s saw Communists behind every instance of colonial unrest. This was not without bad faith: if Communists were to blame, then the United States would be more likely to accept repression as necessary in the Cold War context than regard it as an instance of outmoded colonialism.

In one important case, both American and British politicians convinced themselves - and despite Intelligence to the contrary - that a local Nationalist leader did pose a Communist threat. This was Cheddi Jagan who had the misfortune to be working for the independence of a colony - British Guiana - in America's backyard. So with  the help of CIA money and dirty tricks (and,basically, the CIA in the 1950s wasn't about much more than money and dirty tricks), Jagan was ousted from government and replaced with the puppet figure of Forbes Burnham - who went on to wreck his country's democracy and economy. (A bit like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who was seen by Britain as the "Best Bet" for a post-independence leader) .

Walton deals with the question of interrogation techniques and torture in British colonies, using documents which have only recently been allowed into the public domain. This provides a context, for example, to understand the recent court cases in London brought by former Mau Mau detainees. He also has some damning quotations ( Page 344) documenting  the British government's simultaneously racist and servile behaviour in clearing the inhabitants of Diego Garcia from their Indian Ocean  island home in order to make way for a giant  military base demanded by the Americans. In related discussions, he explain why in pre-Internet days Britain hung on to territorial outposts not only as places where warships could refuel or war planes could land and take off, but also as listening posts from which one could eavesdrop on other people's radio traffic. Cyprus provides a notable example and explains why we still claim the Freehold of part of the island  which in consequence is divided in three,not two as is usually thought.

Well, it took me a long time to read but I find I have had quite a bit to say about this book. And that does tend to support its claim to offer a study of topics previously little studied.