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Introducing Beyond Slavery’s month on forced labour in the global political economy

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editors introduce their February issue exploring the political economic contexts of slavery, trafficking and forced labour, and examining global efforts to confront their root causes.

Migrants in Greece protest one year after 30 strawberry pickers were shot. Menelaos Mich/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

There is a growing and sober awareness among international organisations and some advocacy groups that trafficking, slavery and forced labour are not anomalies perpetuated by a few ‘bad apple’ employers. Rather, severe labour exploitation is an endemic feature of the contemporary global economy. From slavery and trafficking in the production of shrimp in Thailand to artisanal cheese and clothing made by US prison labour, forced labour plays a significant role in commodity production, as well as care, domestic, and sex work. The need to address forced labour more systematically has been emphasised recently in the rise of calls to tackle ‘root causes’.

Yet what actually are these root causes? How do they operate? Beyond the commonplace notion that ‘poverty’ renders workers vulnerable to abuse, or that this abuse constitutes ‘the underside of globalisation’, what do we actually know about the specific ways in which the structure of the global economy conditions both poverty and severe labour exploitation?

Over the coming weeks we present a number of articles that attempt to get to grips with these questions. These take as their starting point two basic premises: 1) poverty and globalisation are indeed fundamental for the rise and proliferation of seriously exploitative labour; 2) we need to go beyond these abstractions if we’re to generate sophisticated understandings of how and why.

In doing so, it might be useful to borrow a metaphor from classical economics—that of supply and demand.  We contend that under certain circumstances, policies that impoverish people, as well as policies that heighten their dependence on money and markets for subsistence, create a supply of workers vulnerable to serious exploitation. At the same time, the pressures of capitalist globalisation as well as the dynamics of particular industries generate a business demand for their labour. However, given that not all poor people are trafficked, and that not all businesses deploy forced labour, which factors specifically lead these lines of supply and demand to intersect?

Our first week lays out the big picture of forced labour in the global economy. Nicola Phillips kicks us off by interrogating some troubling but common assumptions about poverty and vulnerability to forced labour, arguing that those who are most exploited are often _not _the most destitute. As she points out, poverty-as-vulnerability is not reducible to income. Rather, it involves education, opportunity, access to services, migrant rights, gender justice, and other factors.

Marcus Taylor highlights another crucial driver of forced labour in the global economy: climate change. He argues that drought and scarcity drive many small-holder farmers into cycles of debt and bonded labour, thereby intensifying the relational webs of dispossession and domination that permeate caste and class in India. Both authors flag the need for policy to incorporate nuanced understandings of how macro political economic dynamics like poverty and climate change generate a ‘supply’ of people vulnerable to labour exploitation, which can include forced labour, trafficking, and slavery.

Linking the growing supply of vulnerable workers to business’ demand for it, Kendra Strauss focuses our attention on an increasingly large and powerful group of recruiters and employers called ‘labour market intermediaries.’ These brokers often profit from workers’ vulnerability at bottom end of the labour market, sometimes through business models deliberately configured around practices of human trafficking and forced labour. David McNally and Sue Ferguson take this discussion further by identifying the role of wealthy states’ labour market and immigration policies in facilitating employers’ use of bonded and unfree labour. They flag the neoliberal rollback of social protection and privatisation of the means of subsistence as root causes of forced labour, insofar as these trends have undermined the freedom of poor workers to say ‘no’ to exploitative jobs.

Our second week examines how, within the context of these macro trends, sector specific dynamics can also generate a demand for forced labour. The articles look at the specifics of three individual economic sectors. Sébastian Rioux looks at retail-driven food supply chains; Ben Richardson examines the production of sugar; Chun-Yi Lee examines manufacturing in China; and Alessandra Mezzadri analyses the role of labour unfreedom in the global garment industry. Each of these pieces fleshes out the previous reflections on supply with a corresponding analysis of demand_.

Discussions of demand in the age of the ‘global factory’ inevitably require reflections on supply chains, the price-setting power of lead firms, the violent battle for profit along the supply chains, and the ways in which supply-chain dynamics create space for, or even require, severe worker exploitation. Rioux begins this discussion with a piece on the monopsony of global food retailers, while Richardson’s article reveals how modern firms producing goods for global value chains draw on management techniques developed in slave times, including forced labour.

The second half of the month deepens the discussion of global supply chains, and turns attention to existing policy responses. The third group of articles looks at the particularities of expanding efforts to tackle forced labour in global supply-chains, while the fourth addresses global governance initiatives more broadly. A common theme running throughout this analysis will be the chronic insufficiency of contemporary efforts to get to grips with the nuances of global exploitation, or to address the ‘root causes’ with which we began our reflections.

Benjamin Selwyn’s article argues that increasingly complex global supply chains are not technical and benign business innovations, but rather are tools to accelerate domination and surplus extraction. So long as initiatives to ‘slavery-proof’ supply chains fail to incorporate this insight, they will be inadequate. Fabiola Mieres and Siobhán McGrath echo this stance, documenting the limitations of corporate self-governance and the industry of ‘risk mitigation’, while Andreas Rühmkorf laments deficiencies in existing legal frameworks to hold multi-national companies responsible for forced labour in their supply-chains. Kate McDonald, for her part, highlights the pitfalls of relying on ethical consumers to generate ethical labour practices.

In our last batch of articles, Joel Quirk and André Broome take aim at the politics of global benchmarking that characterise latter-day ‘modern slavery’ abolitionism. Rather than genuinely addressing worker exploitation, they argue, the NGO strategy of benchmarking seems more focused on establishing organisational credentials and brand recognition within a competitive charity marketplace. Jens Lerche, while not levelling accusations of bad faith against the International Labour Organisation, still criticises the UN’s ‘labour arm’ for its counterproductive reformism and lack of political courage when seeking to represent the world’s workers. Finally, Rachel Wilshaw urges us to take a holistic view of the governance challenges surrounding forced labour, including inequality and corporate power.

Finally, we (Genevieve LeBaron and Neil Howard) will be back to wrap up the month, drawing key lessons across the arguments and evidence put forward for policy, activism, and future research.

About the authors

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery, and a UK ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow. You can follow her on twitter @glebaron

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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