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After nearly 20 years of the Palermo Protocols, how do you assess their impact?

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This is a followup question to those initial responses.

I think that they're working, in part because they have been an extremely disruptive force. Without this brash, young, and active challenge from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the protocols themselves, I suspect the IOM, the ILO and other international entities would've continued to chug along with the forced forms of exploitation subsumed into other parts of their mission. 

Previous mechanisms just didn’t work. Whether we’re talking about the 1956 Anti-Slavery Convention, the 1957 Forced Labour Convention, or even the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, none of these were focused on victims in the communities in the way that the three-P paradigm – prevention, prosecution, protection – of the Palermo Protocols is.

Likewise, look at how older British or US paradigms dealt with the sex industry. These laws basically exempted sex workers from ever being classified as being enslaved, even if they had suffered coercion. Instead, they subjected them to a legal regime based on international commerce and movement that considered sex workers unwanted commodities, as opposed to people whose rights may have been violated. That might be the most important part of the Palermo Protocol: it says that it doesn't matter if a person in prostitution chose to do that work, were forced into it, or had crossed a border or migrated. Rather, it focuses on whether they were held in compelled service at any time, regardless of initial consent or foreknowledge, and no matter whether they are in their hometown or thousands of miles away. Conceptually, these changes ended up expanding protection to a lot of people who had been exempted from earlier human rights concepts. 

Even though prosecution numbers have not skyrocketed under Palermo, the discourse and the level of activity has changed substantially as a result. Without Palermo you wouldn't be seeing joint projects between the big institutions in Geneva. You wouldn't be seeing countries going out and setting up task forces. You wouldn't be seeing pro-worker legislation being considered in pro-business places like Australia.

The fact that Palermo Protocols align pretty closely with the U.S. reporting mechanism has certainly helped to increase uptake. This is an annual audit of what countries are doing to combat trafficking, and when they align themselves against the 11 minimum standards under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act they also carry out their obligations under Palermo. That feels very different than, ‘Oh, well, if we ever see such and such in any of our brothels, then we will do something.’  Each year, the Americans are going to not just assess, but publish the results, which forces a more proactive approach.  

Eighteen years in and we are approaching global adoption of Palermo. But we’re not yet approaching global compliance.  The next stage of implementation of that protocol has to now focus on actual results. Countries should no longer be getting credit for ratification or for putting new laws in place – now they have to go out and use them. That means meaningful prosecutions with both criminal punishment of the bosses and restitution for the victims. It means prevention efforts that incentivise a real role for workers in setting and enforcing standards and carry consequences for those who do not address abuse in their supply chains. And it means real victim protection, including social services, family unification, protection from deportation, and true reintegration into communities and workplaces.  

Back to my place in the round table

Round table on the future of work


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