Britney Spears’ conservatorship raises questions about forced labor, which experts say doesn’t get enough attention in the US

Britney Spears and her father Jamie
Britney Spears has long been fighting for freedom from her conservatorship and has claimed abuse by her father, Jamie, The New York Times reported. Associated Press
  • Britney Spears told an LA judge that living under conservatorship is like “sex trafficking.”
  • Spears didn’t allege she was forced into sexual servitude, but said she was made to work against her will.
  • Forced labor is another form of human trafficking that gets less attention in the US, experts say.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Britney Spears spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday about being forced to work long weeks with few days off and without access to any of her money, comparing the treatment she faced under 13 years of conservatorship to “sex trafficking.”

Spears didn’t allege her conservators sexually exploited her, but she did explain in detail how they made her work against her will. Forced labor, like sexual servitude, is a form of human trafficking – and it doesn’t get much attention in the United States, according to Alicia Peters, an associate professor of anthropology at University of New England who researches human trafficking.

Peters told Insider that Spears’ statement pushes the boundaries for who can be considered a victim of forced labor.

“It sounds like a really problematic situation,” she says. “The fact that she has been in this conservatorship for 13 years, one of the questions that comes to mind for me is whether that still makes sense, and whether it is to her benefit or to her detriment.”

When identifying human trafficking cases, investigators must determine three elements: action, means of force, and purpose. Peters explained that to violate the federal trafficking statute, a person must take an action to “recruit or obtain a person,” then use force, fraud or coercion with the purpose of compelling the other person to provide commercial sex acts or labor on their behalf.

In Spears’ case, Peters said, “the question comes down to, what does that force or coercion look like and does it meet the legal standard? That would be key, and then there’s that purpose. The purpose is getting her to perform, but who is benefiting from her labor and where is that money going?”

The New York Times reported that Spears’ father, Jamie, makes about $16,000 per month as her conservator, in addition to receiving $2,000 a month to rent an office space. The court also allows him to receive a percentage of his daughter’s business profits.

Sara Donato, a spokeswoman for The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a nonprofit that researches and advocates against human trafficking, agrees that more information would be needed to determine whether Spears meets the legal definition of a trafficking victim.

“It definitely shows that she was exploited for her fame,” Donato said of Spears’ statement. “It is a fairly common misconception that ‘forced labor’ and ‘exploitative labor’ are the same thing. While they can look similar, the difference is that people enslaved through some form of forced labor are working under the threat of penalty or without volunteering their employment. Both are driven through a desire to generate profits.”

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Britney Spears signing autographs in 2013. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Spears isn’t the typical trafficking victim

Peters said Spears’ conservatorship is “one of those strange cases” that, to the public, resembles human trafficking. She pointed to John Geddert, the head coach of the US women’s gymnastics team that won the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics who was said to have a harsh and abusive coaching style.

Geddert was indicted in state court in Michigan on 24 felonies, including 20 counts of human trafficking. The coach was accused of subjecting gymnasts to “forced labor or services by causing or threatening to cause physical harm.” He died by suicide before his prosecution.

Peters said there were questions in that case around whether Geddert’s alleged treatment of the gymnasts would have met more narrow federal standards for prosecution.

But most human trafficking victims in the United States are not pop stars or Olympic gymnasts, she said.

People with precarious economic or immigration status are traditionally subjected to human trafficking, according to Peters. In these situations, she said, workers might take on an opportunity that is “somewhat risky,” and then the trafficker will hold the victim’s housing or immigration status over their head as a way to maintain control.

Spears told the judge Wednesday that she is not allowed to access her own money under her conservatorship. The Times reported that when she was earning millions from a successful residency in Las Vegas, she was limited to a $2,000 weekly allowance.

“That’s a key piece of this, that she doesn’t have access to her money,” Peters said. “You can correlate that to somebody whose passport is being held or their wages are being withheld to pay for their housing or their meal – like you would see in a more traditional kind of forced labor situation.”