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Confronting the root causes of forced labour: identity and discrimination

Social discrimination based on race, caste, gender and other factors is a crucial component of the forced labour equation. 

IIlustration by Carys Boughton(CC BY-NC 4.0)

It is not uncommon for proponents of globalisation to view the integration of marginalised social groups into the global economy as a positive step towards poverty reduction. However, as we showed in chapter 4 with our discussion of adverse incorporation, it is possible for people to be incorporated into the labour market, and still remain vulnerable to chronic poverty and exploitative labour relations.

Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, caste and other factors shapes how people are treated in the labour market, and helps to create and justify the supply of people vulnerable to forced labour in the global economy. The “social categorisations”[1] at the root of these various forms of discrimination are not ‘natural’, nor are they new phenomena; they are rooted in the very same logics that justified European colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and other non-European systems of domination.[2]

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the incidence of forced labour is particularly high among ‘scheduled’ castes and tribes in India, indigenous minorities in Nepal and non-Muslims in Pakistan. In Africa, forced labour relations are particularly prevalent in countries that experienced slavery, or where continuing patterns of discrimination against people of slave descent are present. And in Latin America, the majority of forced labourers are indigenous people.[3, 4]

The fact that these particular groups are most likely to be found in situations of forced labour suggests that the social discrimination leading to poverty and adverse incorporation is intimately bound up with legacies of hierarchy, domination and exclusion. At the same time, it is important to note that the dynamics fostering the exploitation of marginalised communities are not mere remnants from the past: they are actively reproduced and maintained by the global political economy.

This chapter looks at how the neoliberal restructuring of global markets has exacerbated social hierarchies and shaped long-lasting patterns of exploitation into a continual supply of people vulnerable to forced labour.

Poverty and social discrimination

While some remain deeply invested in the idea that forced labour has nothing to do with structural inequalities, or that in this context race and gender matter little,[5] there is an abundance of research that demonstrates that poverty and labour exploitation disproportionately impact women, lower castes, and non-white and indigenous people.[6, 7, 8] And to the extent that they can be relied upon, statistical estimates constantly reveal more women than men in forced labour and locate considerably more forced labourers in Africa and Asia than in Europe or North America.[9]

As discussed in chapter 1, the restructuring of global markets has heightened the demand for exploitable, ‘disposable’, and flexible labour.[10, 11] For this reason, global and domestic labour markets have become increasingly reliant on mechanisms that deepen unfreedom and labour insecurity for large segments of the working poor.[12] Within this dynamic, social discrimination serves as an “inequality-generating mechanism”[13] that facilitates the wider patterns of poverty and inequality in which GVCs are rooted.[14] Why? Because if certain people are considered to be lesser than others, they are more likely to face the poverty that facilitates their exploitation, and to be viewed by society and employers as more justifiably exploitable.

For instance, gender inequality has been documented as a driver for export competitiveness, because the segregation of jobs by gender tends to keep women’s wages artificially low.[15] This is what economist Stephanie Seguino calls the “comparative advantage of gender disadvantage”.[16, 17] It is important to note, however, that these dynamics are also present in cases where women and men do the same work. For example, Alessandra Mezzadri’s research into transnational garment production shows that women are consistently valued less than their male counterparts and live subject to both covert and overt forms of coercion and exploitation that their male co-workers are spared. Most are paid less than men even when performing the same tasks, and many have been the targets of gendered verbal or physical discipline on the shop floor.[18, 19]

This is compounded by other types of gender-intensified constraints, such as women’s asymmetric role in reproductive labour and the barriers they face in accessing resources such as land, credit and education.[20] All these constraints combined can make it much more difficult for women to socially upgrade in GVCs than men.[21, 22]

Intersecting disadvantages

Gender disadvantages often intersect with other forms of disadvantage, including those based on race. Cruz Caridad Bueno has conducted research with low income black women working in export processing zones (EPZs) and as domestic workers in the Dominican Republic. Her conclusion is that they contribute to wealth and capital formation for the homes and businesses that employ them, “but are limited in their ability to accumulate wealth and human capital for themselves, because employers take advantage of racial, gender, and class discrimination to devalue their work contributions”.[23] In simple terms, employers find them suitable only for certain low-status and low-pay jobs to which they are then effectively confined. Employers furthermore take advantage of their prior exclusion from rights-based education and resulting legal illiteracy to extract extra-legal labour from them. And, finally, employers rely on the fact that most poor people with family responsibilities are rarely able to say no to a job.

Of course, discrimination based on race or other factors impacts people of other genders as well. In Brazil, for example, Nicola Phillips found that the overwhelming majority of workers identified as working in “conditions analogous to slavery” on sugar plantations supplying the world market came “overwhelmingly from the poorer regions of the country, with corresponding racial characteristics”.[24] Sugar production is extremely demanding and turns a profit by relying on hard physical labour, yet employers do not look for just anyone willing to perform that labour. Research shows that they specifically seek out dark-skinned young males, since their gender and racial characteristics are said to make them especially well adapted to the work.[25]

Poverty and labour exploitation disproportionately impact women, lower castes, and non-white and indigenous people.

Verité’s in-depth research into Peru’s and Ecuador’s labour markets tells similar stories of discrimination-based vulnerabilities. In Peru’s illegal gold mining industry, indigenous Peruvians from remote areas were found to be the group most vulnerable to forced labour and debt bondage. Known as indocumentados, they have no birth certificates verifying their nationality and thus cannot acquire the national identification documents necessary to access jobs in the formal sector. This pushes them into informal sectors such as the mining industry, where they lack the resources and ability to report labour violations, and many end up trapped in dangerous and exploitative conditions.[26]

In Ecuador, Verité found that women, indigenous people and people from African descent working in the palm industry are substantially more vulnerable to labour exploitation than other groups.[27] Many Afro-Colombians and indigenous people immigrate to Ecuador from Colombia precisely because they are unable to secure decent jobs in their home country, only to be subjected to similar forms of discrimination in Ecuador. Their irregular migration status further exacerbates their race-derived vulnerability in the new country, a topic we will delve into more fully in chapter 9.

Indigenous people frequently face restricted options for more reasons than a lack of documentation. In addition to being subjected to chronic poverty,[28] indigenous people are usually deprived of land and other resources, which makes them especially vulnerable to exploitative labour conditions. We also see such dynamics at work with caste.[29] Recent research by Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche has confirmed that it is more difficult for members of lower castes and indigenous peoples in South Asia to exit situations of extreme poverty and to benefit from increases in income.[30]

Nicola Phillips’ research into garment production in Delhi corroborates the findings of these other researchers. In a survey of 220 households employing children to produce garments, she found that 60% come from the very lowest castes.[31] Research conducted by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) led to similar findings: 60% of the workers they interviewed in the spinning units of five textile enterprises in Tamil Nadu – a major production hub in the global garment sector – came from what are known as ‘scheduled castes’ or other backward castes. And this type of caste-based discrimination is also prevalent in tea plantations, brick kilns and mining quarries, to name a few other industries.[32, 33, 34]

Deep structures

The many examples above illustrate that even if the lines dividing us were initially drawn by elites bent on entrenching their domination, they have now evolved into living systems that are constantly maintained and reproduced in the localised forms of discrimination, coercion, and exploitation that comprise forced labour at the foot of the global economy. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race, caste and ethnicity, among other socially-constructed markers, shapes vulnerability to exploitative labour relations and socially sanctions both exploitation and disadvantage.[35] It also prevents people who find themselves in such situations from accumulating the necessary wealth and resources to exit situations of chronic poverty or debt bondage. Such systems “entrench a particular set of power relations in a given society”, contribute to the exclusion of certain groups from access to wealth, and “give rise to and structure patterns of poverty and marginalisation”.[36]

Next chapter: Supply 3 of 4: Limited labour protection


  1. C. Tilly (1998) Durable Inequality, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ↩︎
  2. For more on how the history and legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade continue to shape contemporary forms of marginalisation and exclusion, see J. Quirk & J. O’Connell Davidson (eds) Race, Ethnicity and Belonging, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery Short Course, Volume 6. ↩︎
  3. International Labour Organization (2005) ‘A global alliance against forced labour’, Geneva: ILO, 30. ↩︎
  4. International Labour Organization (2009) ‘The cost of coercion’, Geneva: ILO, 8, 15. ↩︎
  5. K. Bales & R. Soodalter (2009) The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 6. ↩︎
  6. UN Women (2015) ‘Summary Report: The Beijing Declaration and Platform For Action Turns 20’. ↩︎
  7. G. Hall & H. Patrinos (2014) Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎
  8. A. Kapur Mehta et al. (2011) ‘India Chronic Poverty Report’, New Delhi: Chronic Poverty Research Centre & Indian Institute of Public Administration. ↩︎
  9. International Labour Organization (2014) ‘Profits and Poverty: the Economics of Forced Labour’, Geneva: ILO. ↩︎
  10. N. Phillips (2011) ‘Informality, global production networks and the dynamics of ‘adverse incorporation’’, Global Networks, 11(3), 387. ↩︎
  11. M. Taylor (ed.) (2008) Global economy contested: power and conflict across the international division of labour, London: Routledge. ↩︎
  12. G. LeBaron (2015) ‘Unfree Labour Beyond Binaries’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(1), 1-19. ↩︎
  13. C. Tilly, Durable inequality, 7-8. ↩︎
  14. N. Phillips (2017) ‘Power and inequality in the global political economy’, International Affairs, 93(2), 429-444. ↩︎
  15. P. Bamber & C. Staritz (2016) ‘The Gender Dimensions of the Global Value Chains’, Issue Paper, Geneva: International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, 7. ↩︎
  16. S. Seguino (1997) ‘Export-Led Growth and the Persistance of Gender Inequality in the Newly Industrialized Countries’, in J. Rives & M. Yousefi (eds.), Economic Dimensions of Gender Inequality: A Global Perspective. Wesport: Praeger. ↩︎
  17. S. Seguino (2000) ‘The Effects of Structural Change and Economic Liberalization on Gender Wage Differentials in South Korea and Taiwan’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24(4), 437-459. ↩︎
  18. A. Mezzadri (2016) The Sweatshop Regime: Labouring Bodies, Exploitation and Garments Made in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎
  19. A. Mezzadri (2016) ‘Class, gender and the sweatshop: on the nexus between labour commodification and exploitation’, Third World Quarterly, 37(10), 1877-1900. ↩︎
  20. C. Staritz & J. Guilherme Reis (2013) ‘Global Value Chains, Economic Upgrading, and Gender’, Washington, DC: The World Bank. ↩︎
  21. P. Bamber & C. Staritz ‘The Gender Dimensions of the Global Value Chains’, 6. ↩︎
  22. Ferrant et al. (2014) ‘Unpaid Care Work: The Missing Link in the Analysis of Gender Gaps in Labour Outcomes’, Paris: OECD Development Center. ↩︎
  23. C. Caridad Bueno (2015) ‘Stratification Economics and Grassroots Development: The Case of Low–Income Black Women Workers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic’, The Review of Black Political Economy, 42(1/2), 38. ↩︎
  24. N. Phillips (2013) ‘Unfree labour and adverse incorporation in the global economy: comparative perspectives on Brazil and IndiaEconomy and Society, 42(2), 189. ↩︎
  25. For similar discussions regarding different contexts, see: McGrath (2013); Mosse (2010) and Barrientos (2011). ↩︎
  26. Verité (2016) ‘Risk Analysis of Indicators of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Illegal Gold Mining in Peru’. ↩︎
  27. Verité (2016) ‘Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of Ecuador’s Palm Oil Sector’. ↩︎
  28. A. Sheperd et al. (2014) ‘The Chronic Poverty Report 2014-2015: The road to zero extreme poverty’, The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network, 28. ↩︎
  29. A. Kapur Mehta et al.India Chronic Poverty Report’. ↩︎
  30. A. Shah, J. Lerche et al. (2017) Ground down by growth: tribe, caste, class and inequality in 21st century India, London: Pluto Press. ↩︎
  31. N. Phillips ‘Unfree labour and adverse incorporation in the global economy: comparative perspectives on Brazil and India’, 189. ↩︎
  32. Verité (2017) ‘Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal and Corporate Supply Chains’. ↩︎
  33. International Dalit Solidarity Network (2016) ‘2016 Annual Report’. ↩︎
  34. J. Raj (2015) ‘The hidden injuries of caste: south Indian tea workers and economic crisis’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  35. N. Phillips ‘Unfree labour and adverse incorporation in the global economy: comparative perspectives on Brazil and India’, 186. ↩︎
  36. Ibid., 188. ↩︎
About the authors

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.


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