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Confronting the root causes of forced labour: restrictive mobility regimes

Border restrictions are often justified as measures to protect migrants from "trafficking", but borders actually increase migrants' vulnerability to forced labour and labour exploitation. 

IIlustration by Carys Boughton(CC BY-NC 4.0)

The rules governing people’s mobility within the global economy are not neutral sorting mechanisms but tools producing different categories of people able to enjoy different rights and freedoms.[1] To be on the right side of them is to be able to move away from poverty, unemployment, and labour abuses towards better work conditions, labour protections and public safety nets. To be on the wrong side of them is to substantially lose one’s freedom to say no to exploitative labour conditions. This is starkly reflected in the existing data on the link between migrant status and forced labour.[2, 3, 4, 5] As Nandita Sharma puts it, “immigration policies [are] the vehicle through which [migrants’] unfreedom is organized”.[6] This chapter will examine how such policies operate in the contemporary global economy to shape people’s vulnerability to exploitative labour conditions amounting to forced labour.

Border controls

Migrant vulnerability to forced labour begins at the border. Although political authorities routinely claim that tighter borders protect would-be migrants from ‘trafficking’, in reality borders increase the likelihood of migrants ending up in situations of exploitation.[7, 8, 9] Aggressive border policies create a game of cat and mouse, where those committed to moving must take evermore circuitous, dangerous and illegalised paths to achieve their objectives. Success therefore comes with a price, one which is frequently paid to smugglers and other intermediaries by taking on debt. To repay these debts many migrants agree to debt-bonded forms of work in hyper-exploitative conditions.[10, 11]

Yet even people who arrive in a country legally can be placed at risk by restrictive migration regimes. Certain categories of migrants – such as asylum seekers – are denied access to the labour market or to social protections while they wait for a decision on their status. In the United Kingdom, the 2002 Asylum Act withdrew the right to work from asylum seekers as a means of deterring excessive or ‘bogus’ applications, while later legislation limited the extent to which they can call on the state when in need.[12, 13, 14] These changes have thrown many into destitution, forcing them to make do with limited state support or enter the informal economy. When they opt for the latter illegal and exploitative conditions often await.[15, 16, 17]

Systemic vulnerability

Myriad studies have documented the links between migration status and vulnerability to forced labour.[18, 19, 20] In the UK, researchers have shown this in low-skilled or illegal sectors such as agriculture, construction and cannabis production.[21] Similar results have been found in Italy’s agricultural sector, where tomatoes, oranges, and other produce are predominantly harvested by African migrants caught between needing to earn a living and being entitled to absolutely no state support.[22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28]

Irene Peano has been conducting research with these workers for several years and observes that most “earn on average less than half the minimum wage established by collective agreements”. Worse still, “many work for a piece rate rather than an hourly wage, and in most cases do so entirely outside the social security system. Working hours greatly exceed those prescribed, and illegal gangmasters, frequently employed to recruit and discipline the labour force, charge workers for transport to the fields as well as accommodation”.[29, 30]

Although most of these workers do consent to their conditions, their freedom to do otherwise has been radically curtailed by their extra-legal status. This status prevents them from accessing state support and places high constraints on their ability to secure the means of their own reproduction.[31] This disadvantage is exacerbated by racial discrimination and other aspects of agricultural production (such as the low prices demanded by large buyers) to produce their exploitation. They represent a disposable labour force available when employers need them, yet those same employers have no responsibility for their welfare when they don’t.

Such dynamics also exist in countries across the global south. In India and China, for example, governments have placed restrictions on the rights and entitlements of migrants when they move internally from state to state. As a consequence, millions of migrants effectively exit social protection when they leave their home states. Researchers at Oxford University surveyed 7000 households in the Indian province of Bihar, whose members usually migrate seasonally for work. They found that 30% were unable to access their entitlements to subsidised food when they did so because their ration cards were declared invalid at their destinations. Such limitations significantly increase the likelihood of people ending up in situations of abuse, since they have no safety net in times of hardship and must rely on employers or labour contractors for food, board and social support.[32]

Migrant vulnerability to forced labour begins at the border.

Apart from geographic region, certain sectors are often especially vulnerable to forced labour because states place them outside the purview of labour law while migrants are intentionally recruited into them. A study by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for example, found that farm work across the Global North is “exempt from requirements concerning overtime, rest days, and health and safety standards”, as well as free from labour inspection.[33] In many instances, therefore, the only force available to ensure employers comply with existing labour standards are the employers themselves.[34] This, as the International Labour Organisations’s (ILO) recent Economics of Forced Labour report highlights, carries significant risks for agricultural migrant worker safety.[35]

Worse still, certain governments place limits on the rights of migrants to collectively organise in defence of their interests. The same OSCE study found restrictions commonly applied to migrants’ rights to participate in trade unions or to form their own unions. These include “making citizenship a condition for taking a trade union office, stipulating that a proportion of the membership must be nationals, or linking trade union membership to a condition of residence or reciprocity or both”.[36]

Visa programmes

Temporary or ‘tied’ visa programmes are another important mechanism fostering forced labour among migrants and restricting their ability to exert their rights. Such visa programmes allow migrants to enter a country but only to work for one specific employer or in one specific location. They commonly apply to sectors which already entail significant worker vulnerabilities because of their geographical or social isolation, such as agriculture, domestic work or care work.[37, 38] For example, workers on visas such as the H2 Guestworker Programme in the United States or the Overseas Domestic Worker visa in the UK are not permitted to change employer or to seek alternative employment if and when problems with their current employers arise. If for any reason they choose to leave their current employment relationship, they are subject to deportation.[39, 40, 41, 42]

The Kafala system, a visa sponsorship programme in Gulf countries, has also been documented to foster exploitative labour conditions. Migrant workers to countries like Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates experience what the Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, calls a “triangle of oppression”, the three sides of which are: heavy fees to labour brokers to secure a job, the confiscation of their passports by employers as soon as they arrive in their destination country, and the absence of legal protections and recourses if they face abuse.[43]

Tied visa programmes inevitably create spaces of structural vulnerability.[44] Many of the workers on them are relatively poor, with family dependents back in their home countries relying on their wages for school, healthcare or other necessities. Many will also have indebted themselves heavily to fund their travel and the purchase of their visa. They thus face very high opportunity costs if they attempt to leave their employment, even when that has become abusive or exploitative. And in many cases, employers capitalise on these vulnerabilities and use threats of denunciation as a mechanism for bolstering productivity or preventing migrant workers from organising.[45] As a result, although they may be formally ‘free’, the substance of their freedom is severely curtailed by their lack of any meaningful freedom to exit this labour relation.


We know that labour regulation, enforcement and organising are crucial for preventing the exploitation of workers. Yet migrants frequently have no choice but to work outside the reach of regulation and without the benefit of collective action due to the limitations that states place on their freedom. Thus while the prophets of ‘globalisation’ hold that markets bring liberty with them, in reality its distribution is far from even.

Capital roams the earth freely but labour most certainly does not. 

Capital roams the earth freely but labour most certainly does not. Excluded from wealth or adversely incorporated into the processes that generate it, many of the world’s poor are denied their freedom to say no when – and especially when – they choose to leave their homes in order to make more money elsewhere. Their continued exclusion is a result of immigration policies and consequently they live at a real risk of forced labour. This risk is compounded by processes of social discrimination, by the neoliberalising undercutting of labour protection, and by the creation of migratory regimes that entrench vulnerability. This is what it means to create a ‘supply’ of potential forced labourers. It is to the demand for their labour that we now turn.

Next chapter: Demand 1 of 4: Concentrated corporate power and ownership

  1. B. Anderson (2013) Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control, Oxford University Press, 71. ↩︎
  2. The ILO estimates that 44% of the world’s forced labourers are migrants. See: International Labour Organization (2014) ‘Profits and Poverty: the Economics of Forced Labour’, Geneva: ILO, 8. ↩︎
  3. Verité (2017) ‘Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal and Corporate Supply Chains’. ↩︎
  4. National Guestworker Alliance (2016) ‘Raising the Floor for Supply Chain Workers: Perspective from U.S. Seafood Supply Chains’. ↩︎
  5. J. Allain et al. (2013) ‘Forced labour’s business models and supply chains’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation. ↩︎
  6. N. Sharma (2006) Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 24. ↩︎
  7. GAATW (2007) ‘Collateral Damage: the Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World’, Bangkok: GAATW. ↩︎
  8. R. Andrijasevic (2010) ‘Deported: The Right to Asylum at EU's External Border of Italy and Libya’, International Migration 48(1), 148-174. ↩︎
  9. B. Anderson & I. Shutes (2014) Migration and Care Labour: Theory, Policy and Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan. ↩︎
  10. R. Miller & S. Baumeister (2013) ‘Managing Migration: Is border control fundamental to anti-trafficking and anti- smuggling interventions?Anti-Trafficking Review, 2, 22. ↩︎
  11. International Labour Organization (2014) ‘Profits and Poverty: the Economics of Forced Labour’, 43-44. ↩︎
  12. R. Madziva (2015) ‘Slavery, asylum, and the face of social death in modern day Britain’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  13. Human Rights Watch (2010) ‘Fast-Tracked Unfairness: Detention and Denial of Women Asylum Seekers in the UK’. ↩︎
  14. Anderson (2013) Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control. ↩︎
  15. Ibid., 74. ↩︎
  16. Refugee Action (2006) ‘The Destitution Trap: Research into destitution among refused asylum seekers in the UK’. ↩︎
  17. H. Lewis et al. (2012) ‘From restrictions to the cap: trends in UK immigration policy’, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 20(1) 87-91. ↩︎
  18. B. Anderson & B. Rogaly, (2005) ‘Forced Labour and Immigration in the UK’, COMPAS & Trades Union Congress. ↩︎
  19. H. Lewis et al. (2014) ‘Hyper-Precarious Lives: Migrants, Work and Forced Labour in the Global North’, Progress in Human Geography, 39(5), 580-600. ↩︎
  20. D. Demetreou (2015), “‘Tied Visas’ and Inadequate Labour Protections: A Formula for Abuse and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom”, Anti-Trafficking Review, 5, 69-88. ↩︎
  21. J. Allain et al. (2013) ‘Forced labour’s business models and supply chains’. ↩︎
  22. N. Dines, & E. Rigo (2015) ‘Postcolonial Citizenships and the ‘Refugeeization’ of the Workforce: Migrant Agricultural Labor in the Italian Mezzogiorno’, in Ponzanesi, S. and Colpani, G. (eds), Postcolonial Transitions in Europe: Contexts, Practices and Politics, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ↩︎
  23. F. Fanizza (2013) ‘L’immigrazione nelle aree rurali della Puglia: il caso della Capitanata’, in Colloca, C. & Corrado, A. (eds), La globalizzazione delle campagne. Migranti e società rurali nel Sud Italia, Milano: FrancoAngeli, 94-112. ↩︎
  24. D. Perrotta & D. Sacchetto (2013) ‘Les Ouvriers Agricoles Etrangers dans l’Italie Méridionale entre “Séclusion” et Action Collective’, Hommes et Migrations, 1, 57-66.


  25. D. Perrotta (2013)‘Traiettorie Migratorie nei Territori del Pomodoro: Rumeni e Burkinabé in Colloca, C. & Corrado, A. (eds), La globalizzazione delle campagne. Migranti e società rurali nel Sud Italia, Milano: FrancoAngeli, 118-140. ↩︎
  26. D. Perrotta (2014) ‘Violenza Simbolica e Migranti in Italia: Esperienze di Ricerca Con Operai Rumeni e Braccianti Burkinabé’, Rassegna Italiana Di Sociologia, 4(1), 149-179. ↩︎
  27. D. Perrotta, (2014) ‘Vecchi e Nuovi Mediatori. Storia, Geografia ed Etnografia del Caporalato in Agricoltura’, Meridiana, 79, 193-220. ↩︎
  28. D. Perrotta (2015),‘Agricultural Day Laborers in Southern Italy: Forms of Mobility and Resistance’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(1), 196-203. ↩︎
  29. I. Peano (2017) ‘Containment, resistance, flight: Migrant labour in the agro-industrial district of Foggia, Italy’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  30. A. Bellagamba (ed.) (2016-17) ‘Special series: the shadows of slavery’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  31. N. Howard (2015) “‘Pomo-d’Oro’: Presence and Absence in the Political Iconography of Italy’s ‘Red Gold’”. ↩︎
  32. T. Murray Li (2017) ‘The Price of Un/Freedom: Indonesia's Colonial and Contemporary Plantation Labor Regimes’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 59(2), 245-276. ↩︎
  33. OSCE (2009) ‘A Summary of Challenges on Addressing Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation in the Agricultural Sector in the OSCE Region’, Vienna: OSCE, 24. ↩︎
  34. H. Bauder (2006) Labor Movement: How Migration Regulates Labor Markets, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Part VI. ↩︎
  35. International Labour Organization (2014) ‘Profits and Poverty: the Economics of Forced Labour’, 20. ↩︎
  36. OSCE (2009) ‘A Summary of Challenges on Addressing Human Trafficking for Labour Exploitation in the Agricultural Sector in the OSCE Region’, 29. ↩︎
  37. Ibid., 20.
  38. Agricultural work is often physically demanding, geographically remote, and thus difficult to both leave and to regulate. Care and domestic work are at times socially isolated and laden with emotional pressures towards ‘extra’ labour, well beyond the gaze of the authorities. ↩︎
  39. G. LeBaron (2015) ‘Unfree Labour Beyond Binaries’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(1), 1-19. ↩︎
  40. Scholars have emphasised that domestic workers are among the most vulnerable workers in any sector of the economy (Anderson, 2000; ILO, 2012: 26). There are number of reasons for this, which derive from the nature of domestic work and from the way that it is commonly (un)regulated. Firstly, this work takes place beyond the reach of labour inspectors and at times even of neighbours. Workers are therefore isolated and divided from potential sources of protection. Secondly, workers are isolated from their personal or familial networks, working in places and amidst a population whose languages may be unfamiliar. Thirdly, these workers are often relatively poor and uneducated, meaning that they have few livelihood options. And fourthly, as this section wishes to make clear, their immigration status is often linked to their remaining in their current employment, meaning that reporting or fleeing abuse carries the significant cost of deportation.
  41. B. Anderson (2000) Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ↩︎
  42. International Labour Organization (2013) ‘Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection’, Geneva: ILO. ↩︎
  43. Solidarity Center (2014) ‘Forced Labor: Panel Spotlights Migrant Worker Plight in Mideast’. ↩︎
  44. Bauder, Labor Movement: How Migration Regulates Labor Markets, 158. ↩︎
  45. National Guestworker Alliance (2016) ‘Raising the Floor for Supply Chain Workers: Perspective from U.S. Seafood Supply Chains’, 58. ↩︎
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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