Debt, Trafficking and Safe Migration: The Brokered Mobility of Vietnamese Sex Workers to Singapore

Geoforum, 2020, 137: 164-173

In popular thinking, debt evokes notions of vulnerability and bondage, while irregular migration for sex work conjures up the hazards of human trafficking and modern slavery. These perceptions inform ‘safe migration’ policies aimed at ordering and regulating migration and combating informality to increase migrants’ safety and well-being; the assumption being that illegality puts migrants at risk of abuse. This article challenges these assumptions with an ethnographic study of brokerage practices in the quasi-family networks that facilitate the irregular and circular migration of Vietnamese sex workers to Singapore. In these networks, brokers sell a migration package on credit to their clients, the migrant sex workers, who repay it through sexual labour. This package includes all the services necessary for the women to migrate temporarily and work safely in Singapore. Most crucially, it serves as an entrée into the broker’s business and social network, as a way of forming an enduring relationship. Without denying the power of debt to create inequality, obligation and exploitation, this article shows that debt can also be a profitable, non-coercive and reciprocal device for brokers and sex workers alike, a vector of ‘safety’ which limits some of the risks they encounter in a repressive and uncertain host environment. This finding stems from a novel framework in economic anthropology, the ‘socio-economy of debt’ (Gu´erin, 2018), which complicates moral views of debt through an empirical examination of the materiality, power dynamics and social and moral meanings of debt arrangements and relationships.