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The role of labour market intermediaries in driving forced and unfree labour

There has been lots of talk about multinational corporations’ responsibility for fuelling forced labour.  But what about the labour market intermediaries who recruit and supply vulnerable workers to these firms?

Filipino workers call for the confiscation of some recruitment agencies' licenses. d_pata pata/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

In many people’s minds, words like trafficking and modern slavery are associated with sexual exploitation, especially of women and children. As the International Labour Organisation has highlighted, however, the majority of the estimated 21 million victims of ‘modern slavery’ worldwide are exploited for their labour. In diverse sectors including agriculture and food processing, manufacturing, construction and domestic work, vulnerable workers are subject to coercion that is often exacerbated by the lack of a direct employment relation. In other words, from agricultural labour gangs to subcontracted workers in factories, labour intermediaries play a role in creating a hyper-flexible workforce. In the broadest sense, and in human relations theory, labour intermediaries are any individuals or organizations that stand between a worker and the firm or entity that requires labour. They act as brokers to fill jobs and they ‘lease’ labour  (in the case of temporary workers) to companies seeking flexibility. However, as research in sectors like horticulture has shown, labour intermediaries or contractors are key players in forced labour situations.  

The problem is that this reality clashes with the approaches of most governments towards labour intermediaries. Since the mid-1980s, the trend has been acceptance and deregulation of markets for temp workers. I first became interested in the UK’s Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA), which was established to regulate labour brokers and recruiters—still called gangmasters in Britain—after the tragic drowning of 24 undocumented Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004, because it represented a rare tightening of regulations. The tragedy had spurred the government to finally increase oversight of labour intermediaries in the agriculture, horticulture, food processing and shellfish gathering sectors, but in only those areas.  The GLA legislation implicitly recognised the particular vulnerability of migrant workers. However, it stopped short of increasing oversight of labour contractors in all sectors characterised by what the geographer Jane Wills has called the ‘migrant division of labour. When I moved back to my home country of Canada from the UK last year, the UK was in the process of debating its new Modern Slavery Bill. A major concern of migrants’ and workers’ advocates was the role of the GLA, which was being forced to do more with fewer resources after budget cuts at the same time as it was being touted as a possible model for regulation in other sectors.

The relationship between unfree labour, intermediation (indirect employment) and the private economy is a key dimension of the problem of forced labour that governments often choose to ignore in their desire to foster flexible labour markets. Yet not all states and authorities respond in the same way, either. In 2014 Professor Judy Fudge and I published a co-edited a book, Temporary Work, Agencies and Unfree Labour: Insecurity in the New World of Work, which brought together researchers from law and the social sciences to consider the links between temporary agency work and unfree labour in contemporary economies. Our core argument was that:

evidence suggests that ‘sweating’ at the bottom end of the labour market (increasingly populated by migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, in many countries) often involves labour intermediaries who exploit the ways in which processes of racialization and the construction of new categories of social difference, instigated by immigration regimes, render some workers extremely vulnerable—including to forced and unfree labour.

Labour intermediaries, in other words, are key to the construction and exploitation of especially migrant workers’ vulnerability to forms of unfree and forced labour and labour trafficking. This does not happen by accident, or some neutral ‘law’ of the market. It happens because of the way labour markets and work relations are constructed: understood, talked about, regulated or left unregulated.

A key problem is that labour intermediaries take diverse forms. Some of are large, well-known international temp employment agencies. Others are individual recruiters, single links within extensive chains of labour contracting in global value chains and production networks. In the case of undocumented workers, there may be a blurry line between people smugglers, traffickers and recruiters. Neat categorical distinctions between labour and sexual exploitation also break down. Vulnerable workers, often but not only women and children, may be coerced into situations that involve unfree wage labour, sex work, or situations that combine unfree wage labour with sexual exploitation. For example, migrant domestic workers who take out loans to enable them to migrate may be more vulnerable to labour trafficking, but also to sexual exploitation or coerced sex work, because of the are ‘working off what they owe’ to an intermediary. In all cases migrants’ immigration status compounds the relationship we identify in the book (and well documented by others) between temporary and intermediated employment and precarious work. The GLA implicitly recognises this relationship, focusing as it does on sectors that are heavily dependent on low-paid migrant labour. That said, it is limited by a whole range of factors, including a narrow sectoral focus, limited resources and the idea that it should not create regulatory burdens on employers.

Upon my return to Canada, I noted that the regulation of intermediaries, including immigration consultants, was again a major issue of concern and contention. Trafficking and, to a lesser extent, forced labour, have climbed the political agenda but the focus has been somewhat different than in the UK. Canada has no stand-alone forced labour or slavery offences on the books, and the debate is almost entirely dominated by sex trafficking. Priding itself on being a country with a positive history of multiculturalism, the large and growing role of temporary migration programmes has been causing controversy. Indeed, accusations were levelled in the summer of 2014 that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was taking jobs away from Canadian workers. The Live-in Caregiver Program, part of the TFWP which predominantly recruits female workers from the Philippines to work as nannies and carers in Canadian households, has long been critiqued by activists for requiring women to ‘mortgage their futures’ for the chance to settle in Canada. This occurs not (or not only) because of the nature of the program itself, but because of the high fees paid to recruiters and immigration consultants in order to secure positions. Similar problems are found in the fast-growing and newly reformed Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Fees, debts and webs of obligation (enmeshing families and communities) result in de facto bonded labour or indentured labour.

These issues have generated some recent debate in Canada, including among activists, advocates and politicians seeking progressive reforms to these programs. Such debate often centres on competing regimes of regulation for intermediaries of various kinds, including the much-lauded Manitoba model that Judy and her co-author Daniel Parrot write about in the book. The Manitoba model addresses the exorbitant—and illegal—placement fees charged to temporary foreign workers, who were increasingly recognized as important to the province’s economy, by holding employers legally responsible for their reimbursement. This has led to a rise in direct recruitment. The system also encompasses a licensing mechanism for foreign recruiters. The Manitoba model is now being promoted in British Colombia, the province contrasted (unfavourably) with Manitoba in the book, as a solution to recurrent problems of exploitation by recruiters and immigration consultants.

This model is held up as a source of emulation in part because it seeks to control and regulate the recruitment process, rather than to hide behind claims that jurisdictional issues (migrant workers are recruited outside of Canada) make this an impossible task. It also disrupts the notion that intermediaries are an essential cog in the temporary migration wheel; that is, that employers will not be able to recruit migrant workers without using labour intermediaries. It is not sector specific, in contrast to the GLA, and thus prevents exploitative intermediaries from simply targeting workers in other sectors, such as the home care and hospitality.

Yet although these steps are encouraging, we need to be aware that tackling intermediaries, while vital in the context of existing migration and labour market regimes, does not address the root causes of migrant vulnerability: racialization, precarious migrant status, and labour markets that prioritize flexibility and profits over workers’ rights. Forced labour and labour trafficking occur at the nexus of these dimensions of vulnerability. Until we recognize these problems with labour markets, and with relations of production more broadly, the hope of regulating extreme labour exploitation out of existence is likely to remain unrealised. 

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