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What’s the difference between having no choice and being forced to choose?

The history of indentured workers in the Caribbean has a lot to teach us about ‘human trafficking’ today.

At Emancipation Park in Kingston, Jamaica. Kent MacElwee/flickr.  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the past two decades, different forms of unfree labour have increasingly been compared to chattel slavery, and the movement of people into such labour – termed ‘human trafficking’ – to the transatlantic slave trade. But, as critical commentators have pointed out, such comparisons are unwarranted, and a more careful reading of history can offer us a more accurate perspective on the contemporary practices termed ‘modern slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’.

Indentureship in the Caribbean

The Caribbean region can provide us with a glimpse into such historical questions, where the system of indentureship pre-dated, co-existed with, and survived slavery. It was organised with a considerable level of fraud and violence by colonial governments to give farm and plantation owners access to and control over a large pool of low-cost wage labourers for the agricultural industry.

The system relied on the recruitment, often under false pretences, of dispossessed people from Europe and Asia, contractually binding them to a single employer for a fixed term in exchange for transportation to the colonies, subsistence wages, and in some instances, land. Indenture contracts varied between one and 14 years, and came with the possibility or requirement of re-indenture upon expiration. The indentured were shipped to the Caribbean and confined to plantations or estates, where they lived and worked under conditions similar in some respects to those for Africans under slavery. They had no choice in employer, could not buy themselves out of or negotiate their contract, nor could they move freely without the consent of their employers.

Indentureship and slavery were complexly intertwined. The indentured all started out as agricultural workers and domestic servants, sometimes working alongside enslaved Africans. Yet some, such as whites and Chinese, were encouraged to take up semi-skilled, artisanal, or shopkeeping positions. Some whites, garnering racial privilege through the ‘public and psychological’ reward of whiteness, took up appointments as lowly managers and overseers of the enslaved. At the same time, some formerly enslaved Africans opted for or were driven into indentureship, often moving to colonies where the agricultural industry was expanding in order to survive their newly given ‘freedom’.

Slavery has been and continues to be evoked as a point of comparison for the cruelties, coercions, and highly exploitative character of the indentureship system. Such attempts to describe Caribbean indentureship as a type of slavery or to favourably compare the conditions of indentured and enslaved people are analogous to current campaigns equating some forms of migrant labour with ‘human trafficking’ or ‘modern slavery’. It also signals the ease with which slavery worked then, as it does today, as a metaphor for a lack of freedom.

However, despite similarities in some conditions and experiences of enslavement and indenture, and despite the violence of both labour systems in the Caribbean, the two are widely recognised by scholars and writers to be quite distinct from each other. These distinctions have resonance for discussions about ‘modern slavery’ and human trafficking today.

Modern slavery and human trafficking as indenture?

The indentured in the Caribbean were for the most part contracted, and it was their labour that was sold and traded as a commodity through the indenture contract that tied them to the employer. They were neither, as enslaved Africans were, legally defined as property, chattel, or non-human, nor were they excluded from property rights. Indenture also largely rested upon ‘choice’ – that is, impoverished, destitute, dispossessed people were compelled to find some form of subsistence in places rife with famine and violence, and within that context the prospect of prosperity overseas tempted many. They thus signed recruiters’ contracts for a fixed term overseas and went along ‘voluntarily’ to the New World.

Some formerly enslaved Africans opted for or were driven into indentureship in order to survive their newly given ‘freedom’.

As with so-called modern slaves and trafficked persons today, they had been ‘forced to choose’ not by recruiters but by circumstance. Historiography thus identifies the ‘root causes’ for indenture as similar to those identified for trafficked persons and ‘modern slaves’. Both systems also share a global context characterised by expanding production and capital’s constant search for cheap labour and services.

Contemporary migrant labour systems – such as Canada’s reliance on agricultural labour from Jamaica and Mexico, domestic labour from the Philippines, and sexual labour from Latin America, post-socialist European states, and Russia – continue to manifest problems similar to those encountered by indentured workers in Caribbean history. These include recruitment under false pretences, repayment of travel costs through labour, low wages, work tied to a single employer, and poor working and living conditions. And while human trafficking is usually claimed to operate underground, the state continues today to regulate labour and capital, profiting from arrangements that enable conditions of unfreedom. In this way, the role of the state in creating the conditions for trafficking resonates with the regulation of indenture by colonial governments.

The lessons of the past

Histories of the simultaneity of indentureship and slavery in the Caribbean enable us to pinpoint important distinctions between these labour systems. Taken together, they suggest that labelling contemporary unfree labour as trafficking or ‘modern slavery’ obscures important differences in the status and conditions of those ‘forced to choose’ and those caught in the transatlantic slave trade. Indenture appears to be the far more appropriate analogy, and its use would be less salacious than ‘modern slavery’ or ‘human trafficking’.

Thus, rather than using a discourse of trafficking and slavery to appeal to individuals’ morality or fear of captivity, we could build strategies for change that analyse current practices with care and respect for the past. This is not, however, an argument to simply exchange terms. While a politics of indenture could deflate some of the hype and moral panic that comes with notions of ‘modern slavery’ and human trafficking, its adoption would not necessarily get ‘to the bottom of things’. Migrant rights, labour rights, sex workers’ rights and economic justice will continue to require our attention, if the goal is equality and safety for all.

A longer version of this article was first published in the Anti-Trafficking Review issue 9


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