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ILO campaigns: missing the wood for the trees?

The ILO’s struggle against forced labour doesn’t go far enough. By abstracting ‘forced labour’ from capitalism, it de-politicises all labour exploitation. This is the opposite of what is needed.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN body charged with the eradication of forced labour worldwide, should be credited for its role in returning forced labour to the international limelight. Although its binding international conventions against forced labour go back to 1930, it was the ILO’s 1998 ‘Decent Work’ campaign that made it a force to be reckoned with. This campaign put forced labour on the centre stage, and made its abolition one of the four core, required policies for all countries wishing remain a part of the ILO.

The Decent Work campaign set up a ‘Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour’ within the ILO, which has published internationally recognised reports on forced labour for more than a decade. It has put a number on the phenomenon—presently it states that there are nearly 21 million in forced labour worldwide—while working with governments to design and implement approaches, initiatives and policies against forced labour. It pursues its own programmes in the field as well as monitors the progress of different governments. It has estimated the illegitimate profits from forced labour ($150 billion in 2012); formulated new, internationally binding protocols aimed at advancing prevention, protection and compensation measures (2014); and is working on eradicating forced labour in supply chains in sectors such as the garment industry. It also works with labour unions and civil society organisations on a global level and in countries across the world.

Nevertheless, there has been little or no progress in eradicating forced labour worldwide. International organisations and most governments may now talk the talk, but how many truly walk the walk? In a few, exceptional cases something is happening. Brazil is a case in point. Many problems remain there, such as the condition of cane-cutters in the sugar industry, as both Nicola Phillips and Ben Richardson have reported in this BTS issue on forced labour in the global economy. Nevertheless, a combination of some partial implementation of the anti-slavery legislation, partial land reform, social security programmes and increasing wages has had some impact. Another case is Nepal, where serious initiatives against forced labour within the Tharu community were undertaken within the context of heightened politicisation and a Maoist-inspired civil war. But even in these two countries forced labour persists, while elsewhere the impact of the ILO action on the ground is quite limited if felt at all.

Maybe it would be naïve to expect a UN organisation to be anything but fairly toothless. For the ILO, though, there is more to it. The ILO approaches forced labour as if it were completely separate from the economy and society at large, something that can be dealt with in isolation from wider issues. It acts as if such conditions emerge from processes somehow different from the more general processes that create low pay, long hours, arbitrary employment conditions, as well as silence the voices of labour and labour organisations. It makes no connection between forced labour today and processes of neoliberal capitalism or the absence of pro-labour governments. Forced labour can then be dealt with as a specific case, without upsetting the whole applecart of employment relations in export and domestic industries, the general absence of labour inspectors or the non-implementation of labour laws.

 The ILO justifies its approach in a manner that would be approved by the ghost of Adam Smith: forced labour is exploitation of labour but normal labour relations are not exploitative. Forced labour is when market mechanisms do not work, when labour is not sold at its value but force is employed. Unfortunately, forced labour cannot be eradicated by following this logic. In many sectors, as well as in many countries, forced labour is a fairly natural part of labour relations. It is common to squeeze labour as much as possible, using as many means as possible, especially where the general balance of power in society allows for this. Labourers may experience force in a number of ways: it may be brutal and direct, leading to slave-like conditions. Or it can be more subtle, and be mixed with the general powerlessness of most poor people.

It has been shown time and again that large amounts of forced labourers enter into exploitative labour relations with open eyes. However squalid the conditions, however low the pay, and however harsh the abuse they are aware of what they will suffer. This often happens without them being tricked into this and without them being put under direct non-economic force. Such groups include large groups of construction workers from Nepal working in Qatar, Indian domestic migrant low caste brick kiln workers, and Bolivian forced labour garment workers in sweatshops in Brazil.

They do so because, sadly, this is their best possible option in a labour market where decent work is in short supply. What is on offer is a range of appalling jobs, some of which may be classified as forced labour but many others, to the extent they are available, are not much better. To take examples from the Delhi construction sector and garment factories, forced overtime is common, safety regulations are absent, pay is below the minimum wage, employment is insecure, and private security firms make sure that no unions are present.

Without setting global and national limits for the exploitation of labourers by capital, without guaranteeing that poor people do not need to eke out an unacceptable existence as either nominally free or unfree labour, and without ensuring that alternatives to such work are available throughout the economy, people will continue to have to accept work even under the conditions of forced labour.

Until these root causes are addressed the ILO strategy of prevention, detection and rehabilitation will not work. Sadly there is little chance that this will change in the foreseeable future. The ILO is the only tripartite UN organisation, with equal representation from governments, organised labour and employers. Employers, seeking to forestall anything that disturbs ‘ordinary’ employment relations or questions the general absence of decent work under neoliberalism in the South, fight tooth and nail to keep the forced labour issue in its box. While the labour unions in the ILO may want to change this, it has so far proved impossible.

The ILO’s high profile on forced labour issues has probably enabled other activists in countries across the globe to take bolder action, gaining legitimacy from the ILO policy. However, real change will only happen when matters are taken beyond what the ILO is currently willing and able to achieve. 


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