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Why roundabout solutions to forced labour don’t work

Without policies that explicitly address structurally-induced vulnerabilities, we are likely to continue to fail in our efforts to end forced labour.

I am Igor Bosc. I work in the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a chief technical advisor for a program called Work in Freedom, which focuses on forced labour issues and the migration of women, particularly in the context of domestic work and garment work.

Neil Howard (oD): Could you tell us a little more about what the program involves? 

Igor: So the program is basically trying to address different elements of vulnerability in forced labour that either arise in the workplace or the countries that people migrate from – not just in terms of resources that workers can access, but also in terms of how policies affect situations of forced labour. 

We’re looking at different geographical areas, labour regimes and labour export regimes, and we are not only interested in the specific policies around foreign employment or labour laws, but also in the other policies that discipline labour and create situations of forced labour.

Neil: With vulnerability being one of the critical concepts in this field, and at the same time one of the most under-theorised, tell me how you understand vulnerability in the context of this program.

Igor: This program is looking at the prevention of forced labour situations in garment and domestic work and looks at what can be done to reduce vulnerabilities in those sectors and to come up with recommendations to address the existing policies that are generating vulnerability.

One of the more immediate things that come to mind is that the foreign employment policies of the countries of origin and the protection of migrant workers’ rights should be more effectively implemented. Or that the labour regimes should recognise the rights of domestic workers as workers and address the structural patterns that generate their vulnerability, like the sponsorship system and different restrictions of mobility related to that.

So in the end, what we come up with is recommendations for different constituents of the ILO in terms of the types of policies and actions that could affect these issues. If we are talking about foreign employment policies, for instance, it’s important to question the whole issue of migration bans. Why should women's mobility be restricted just because governments presumably want to protect the women? And how do these bans generate additional vulnerabilities that are then exploited in the workplace or during migration to the workplace? Or in the context of the working relationships, how does the isolation of documentation or the lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining really generate people’s vulnerability to forced labour?

And last but not least, why are people even migrating in the first place? Migration is not just aspirational; in most cases there's distress migration as a result of specific types of policies leading to agrarian or environmental crises in the countries of origin. How can this type of governance be changed? These are very structural issues, but we try to find entry points with the governments of the countries of origin to address these issues more effectively. It's often not easy because it’s sort of counterintuitive and countercurrent, but that's our framework. 

Neil: I want to run something by you with regards to the concept of vulnerability, because I think it links up quite neatly with what it is you've said. I've done quite a lot of work recently with a colleague, basically trying to theorise vulnerability within the context of global capitalism and other systems of domination to unfree labour. And the definition we came up with was: ‘inhabiting a position within the social matrix that structurally limits your freedom to say no’, so freedom as the power to say no.

So we conceive of vulnerability as, for example, being a woman in a patriarchal society, having no entitlements to social protection by virtue of your geographical location, or any number of things. But basically, the key nugget is, by virtue of your positionality, you are unable to say ‘no’ to the most exploitative types of work. How does that theorisation sit with you in the context of what it is you've just said?

Igor: The power to say ‘no’ is primarily related to the voluntariness of the labour situation, which is partially addressed in the ILO’s legal definition of forced labour. However, there are some challenges that are important to highlight. Basically, if you have people who are migrating as a result of distress, then what would normally otherwise have been seen as unacceptable, actually becomes acceptable and therefore the power to say ‘no’ diminishes. I think any framing of vulnerability somehow has to take that into account.

If you have people who are migrating as a result of distress, then what would normally otherwise have been seen as unacceptable, actually becomes acceptable and therefore the power to say ‘no’ diminishes.

Neil: Thank you. You mentioned that the legal framework, ILO Convention 29 (C029).  I have always been troubled by the fact that, at least in it’s interpretation of C029, the ILO's been very clear that coercion should be understood individually and that it shouldn’t be taking into account matters of economic coercion, which certainly sits in some tension with idea that people have the structurally-induced vulnerabilities that you highlighted. How do you relate to the dominant interpretation of the convention?

Igor: The ILO has, in the last couple years, come up with what they call indicators of forced labour, including certain factors like the abuse of vulnerability, which cannot happen without structural economic dimensions. So we have been trying as much as possible to address forced labour from a structural perspective, which is much more difficult. It means challenging power relationships where often on the one hand you have situations of extremely influential and powerful actors, employers, sometimes labour recruiters, whose word is usually taken for granted, and on the other hand, very isolated workers who have limited opportunities to say much. So to actually challenge this structurally is very difficult, and it requires the capacity to be strategic.

So for instance, there’s the issue of wage discrimination and of course the need for a living wage that takes into account the basic types of expenditures that someone would have in order to live a life that gives them a minimum amount of dignity and that allows them to ingest the right amount of food and nutrients. So how does not having these things stunt or affect people, and then limit their options?

I think the wage issue is very important and linked to discrimination, because in many cases what happens is that wages are directly linked to the ethnicity, caste, gender, and/or age of the worker. And there are legal instruments that address discrimination – whether it’s CEDAW or the ILO Convention concerning Discrimination (No. 111) – which many countries have actually ratified. So it is possible to very clearly come up with legal processes that question why it is that certain groups of people are entitled to a certain wage while others are not, for the same types of work.

Not that this is the only type of intervention that should be happening; of course, there are many more. And there are interventions that won't necessarily affect the system, but that could at least challenge an important node of how exploitation happens. 

Neil: Related to that, I'm wondering, what you think about two other potential strategies, which is on the one hand, the advancing of universal social protection floors and on the other, the advancement of universal basic income (UBI) as a component of universal social protection floors.

Igor: I think that the advancement of social protection floors is fundamental. However, we're in an environment where social protections are being divested from. The ILO did a study in 2015 called ‘The decade of adjustment’ surveying over 100 countries. And what it found was that over the next decade, because of all sorts of macro-economic commitments, most governments will be spending less on social protection than what they had initially committed to, despite projected population growth.

So what you have is effectively a divestment from social protection, which is extremely worrisome because it takes away the options and the capacity to say ‘no’ that you were referring to earlier. And of course it is important to challenge the discourses of austerity and economic savings, not just in developing countries – where this problem is emerging increasingly – but also in the countries of origin for migration.

And that leads to one issue which is really central, which is that the more you fail to address discrimination within society and why people are not able to access those social protections – whether its education, health, water, or basic facilities – in areas where the most vulnerable and marginalised are actually working and living, then over years you have an increasing number of schemes that try to address social protections but ultimately fail because they don’t address the central issue of discrimination. 

I think that it is central to address issues of segregation and discrimination, which means that the discourse of the governments and policy makers has to change from one of legitimising segregation to one of actually promoting solidarity among different classes of workers. 

The discourse of the governments and policy makers has to change from one of legitimising segregation to one of actually promoting solidarity among different classes of workers.

But it also means that when you come up with a concept like UBI, if you have a general macro-economic trend of austerity there is a risk of isolating the worker-employer relationship, which is essential to the livelihoods of the people who are involved – and particularly to the worker’s – and put the onus of the responsibility on the government. Then what happens over time is that it becomes a subsidy for the employer not to have to pay the wages and eventually even UBI for reasons of austerity is then sort of taken away.

So I am not saying that UBI is necessarily a bad thing, I think it can be very useful and there have been several studies that have shown that in isolated situations. However, in the context of the governance and political economy of a country like India and the trends of austerity that are in place, I think UBI can very quickly become an abusive pretext to dismantle some of the social protection provisions that are already there, as well as give employers opportunity to reduce their costs in wages.

Neil: So a key message then to UBI advocates, myself and others who are interested in not just the Indian debates but debates more broadly, is: yes UBI, but UBI isn't enough and certainly not UBI at the expense of other fundamental structural service provisions.

Igor: Yes, I think that you have to look at that and it should be done in such a way that it will not become a pretext for employers to pay less.

Neil: A final question, the international agenda towards ‘labour freedom’ has been enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG 8), and particularly target 8.7, which calls for the eradication of forced labour, many different agencies have endorsed this standard and have of course worked on it in different ways. What do you think are the prospects of the international community in this international cabal of otherwise divided actors to actually achieve SDG 8 and particularly target 8.7?

 Igor: There have been commitments after commitments on issues like trafficking and forced labour over the year, not just recently. And what seems to be the trend is that the problem doesn’t just disappear, and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing that people focus their attention on this, I think it’s important to learn lessons from these failures and to not embark into misleading frameworks that can overpromise and create expectations which will ultimately deceive the general public about what is actually possible to do.

That's why I think it's very important to have a much more structural, in-depth analysis of the root causes of different types of unfreedom and the types of policies and policy frameworks that are necessary to address those root causes, and not just address the superficial elements around them. 

Farmer protest rally at Jantar Mantar. Jaskirat Singh Bawa/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Neil: And then lastly then, what would your take be on the emerging alliance as the central node if you will in the institutional framework?

Igor: I think much more has to be done beyond the alliance, I think it's important to, as I said earlier, bring in the analysis that many scholars from different types of disciplines have already pointed out, to bring that to bear within the context of Alliance 8.7. To show that it’s extremely ambitious and that, without addressing those structural elements, there the problem won’t be addressed more quickly, but rather the reverse.

I think that if we don't bring in these issues to the fore, it will be difficult and that links back to what I was talking about before about why people are migrating; how the agrarian environmental crisis is generating distress migration; how labour regimes are disciplining labour, and so on. If we don’t address these issues, then we won’t come up with a viable solution.

Neil: And a final question with regards to perspective in the forming of the alliance agenda. My understanding is that in the Wilton Park gathering and the recent gathering in New York, when they were thinking about a knowledge platform and their relationship with the United Nations University, a very very small number of scholars were in attendance and there was almost nobody from the global south. It was basically only the ‘standard representatives’ of western civil society. I level with you and have a great concern that such an already established talking shop is likely to recreate precisely the same intellectual and political failings that we’ve seen over the last couple of decades. What’s your view?

Igor: I think your concerns are justified in that it’s not only the lack of representation of scholars and academics, but also the workers themselves. We’ve just had two days of deliberations of different structural aspects of forced labour and this was possible because of the good coordination between academics and practitioners who are often working in different types of trade unions and other organisations. This has to happen in spaces like the sustainability development goals. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough has been done to make this happen, but in my capacity as a person who is working in the ILO, I am trying to do as much as possible to address this.

Neil: Thank you very much, Igor. I look forward to all of us working with you to try to ensure that we can penetrate the machine so to speak and ensure that some of these conversations do happen inside. 


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