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What has forced labour to do with poverty?

Income-based measures of poverty are unreliable for determining who is most vulnerable to forced labour. More nuanced understandings of vulnerability are required to effectively reduce forced labour in the global economy.

Sugar cane cutters in Brazil in 2006. Cícero R. C. Omena/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Who is vulnerable to forced labour, and why? If you asked a random sample of people this question, whether they were well-informed about forced labour or otherwise, many would immediately mention poverty. And they would be right to do so. Intuitively it seems obvious that people who live in conditions of chronic and dire economic need are most vulnerable to the various means by which people are ensnared and exploited in conditions of forced labour around the world.

Available research confirms this intuition. We know from recent estimates that forced labour is located most prevalently—but not exclusively—in relatively poorer regions, such as South Asia, and in poorer parts of countries. A study in Pakistan found that 66 percent of rural households in lower Sindh Province lived in conditions of extreme poverty, and almost all of these were bonded sharecroppers and labourers. Household surveys in India also show that those with higher levels of income are less likely to use or sell the labour of their children.

In reality, though, the picture is not quite that simple. Few studies exist on the links between forced labour and poverty in the global economy, but what little we know suggests they are more complex and varied than we often think. My co-researchers and I, for instance, have focused on Brazil. We recently analysed data on more than 21,000 people released from slavery-like conditions—the vocabulary favoured in Brazil and used in the relevant legislation—in the agricultural sector between 2003 and 2010. We connected that information with our conversations with both workers and people involved in Brazil’s extensive anti-slavery programme. One of our most arresting findings was that the people most likely to work in slavery-like conditions tended not to be the poorest of the poor.

Instead, they tended to fall into the category of the ‘working poor’.  These are people across the world who exist above the extreme poverty line of $1.25 per day, usually at or slightly below (but sometimes above) minimum wage levels. In fact, worldwide the number of people living between the $1.25 and $2 per day poverty lines—the classifications used by the World Bank—doubled between 1981 and 2008. It is no coincidence that our research found indicators of profound vulnerability to forced labour in this category, including in Brazilian agriculture.

The additional reason for this pattern of vulnerability is simple: recruiters and employers in agriculture are looking for workers—most often young men in the 18-34 age bracket—who have the physical condition necessary to endure the most intense forms of manual labour. They are not looking for the chronically malnourished and destitute.

Our research also revealed that two factors were more important than income poverty levels in this context. The first was education: in the data we analysed, fully 68 percent of the workers either were illiterate or had no more than four years of schooling. The second was economic insecurity, where the availability of work is erratic and income is precarious. In other words, the key is the insecurity and unpredictability of income, not the overall level of income.

In other settings, the picture is different. Most victims of trafficking for forced labour to (or in) countries like the UK are again not the extremely poor, but rarely are they the least educated either. Research on global migration patterns helps explain why this is the case. The poorest of the poor are the least mobile because they lack the resources to move. The propensity to migrate increases with education, yet migrant workers often end up in occupations well below their level of education and qualifications.

So, because trafficking situations often begin with an individual’s decision to migrate, it is safe to assume that victims of trafficking often fit this profile. They may be relatively poor, or relatively less educated, but it is not unheard of that they may have university degrees. In these scenarios, the sources of vulnerability might instead be a lack of employment opportunities or decent wages, alongside a wide range of other forms of social and personal deprivation.

What does all this tell us, and why does it matter? It tells us that forced labour is deeply connected to poverty, but understanding poverty in terms of income—and particularly focusing on extreme poverty and destitution—can often be a highly unreliable guide to who is most vulnerable, and why.

Poverty has many other dimensions: education, opportunity, access to services and social safety-nets, rights for women and girls, access to decent work and wages, and a host of other ‘human development’ issues. Which of these are most tightly connected to patterns of slavery varies in different contexts and for different groups of people.

It matters because effective policy responses depend on understanding these variations. There are calls for forced labour to be better integrated into national and international poverty reduction strategies. This must happen, as the inclusion of forced labour in national legislation and priorities is an indispensable prerequisite to addressing forced labour and slavery in the global economy. In doing so, however, we must shift the focus away from income measures and extreme poverty, thereby opening up poverty reduction strategies to more nuanced and accurate understandings of vulnerability and forced labour. Social protection policies aimed at the lowest-income households are unlikely to make a significant positive impact on many workers’ vulnerability to forced labour. Indeed, such policies may end up having the opposite effect, increasing the vulnerability of workers by letting them slip through social safety nets and become more dependent on highly exploitative work. The more effective strategies in this scenario may relate to education, skills and labour market policies.

The challenge—and it is a big one for both research and policy—is to figure out which forms of poverty, in which contexts, make people most vulnerable to forced labour, and to work out appropriate strategies on that basis. Yet again, one size does not fit all. 

About the author

Nicola Phillips is Professor of Political Economy and the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, UK. Her research interests focus on global economic governance, labour in global production, and forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation in the global economy. Between 2010 and 2013, she held a prestigious Major Research Fellowship from The Leverhulme Trust, for work on forced labour and human trafficking, and she has researched, published and consulted widely on these topics. She is also currently the Chair of the British International Studies Association.

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