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Southern perspectives on development: the missing link in discussions on modern slavery

Isn’t it strange that so few people who are assumed to be ‘modern slaves’ see themselves as such?

Mural in Brooklyn with the inscription "We are not government issued". Rebecca Wilson/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Eliminating modern slavery, trafficking, and other forms of extreme exploitation is a declared priority of the current UK government. Its strategy to do so is inextricably linked to Western views and policies on migration, and, given its leading role in high-level consultations on a ‘global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration’, as well as in discussions around the UN’s sustainable development goals, it is well positioned to influence the way in which migration is discussed in these important forums.

This has come at a time when irregular migration has become especially visible and politically sensitive. This has resulted in an unhelpful bundling together and criminalisation of different kinds of migration, with calls for border control, police, and immigration to jointly defeat, as Theresa May puts it, “this vile and systematic international business model at its source and in transit”. It is only by removing labour market intermediaries – it is argued – that they can be saved from the slavers, traffickers, and unscrupulous employers intent on exploiting them.

Such arguments are made with very little evidence that migrants wish to be ‘saved’ in such a manner, or indeed that they view this as a form of ‘saving’ at all. On the contrary, there is substantial evidence to suggest that such policies have the unintended effect of pushing most workers into the least visible end of manufacturing, trade and services where legal protection is hard to deliver. The global policy community is thus trying to find a solution to ‘modern slavery’ without recognising that border controls, bad governance, and unwelcoming cities are all contributing factors to exploitation in the first place.

The global policy community is trying to find a solution to ‘modern slavery’ without recognising that border controls, bad governance, and unwelcoming cities are all contributing factors to exploitation in the first place.

Be that as it may, the time is ripe to feed in ideas, evidence and opinions in the hope that win-win arrangements can be found for all. For those working on migration and poverty, SDG 8.7 – which aims to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking – is of enormous significance, as it constitutes an important entry point for influencing the direction of current discussions. There have been calls for more evidence, to reduce the costs of migration, and to regulate or eliminate middlemen who are seen as the perpetrators of violence and exploitation. What is missing from these calls, however, is any suggestion that we should begin speaking with and coordinating our responses with the migrants themselves.

The need for more evidence

There can be no doubt that we need more data and information because so much of the discussion is based on assumptions, moral panics, and normative judgements rather than solid evidence. Part of the reason for the lack of data is that migrants in irregular situations are scared to self-report for fear of deportation or, in the case of internal migrants, businesses and brokers keep them hidden to avoid complying with labour laws. Innovative data collection methods need to be designed to open the ‘black box’ of exploitative labour arrangements and the relationships that underpin them, in order for policy makers to better understand what happens before migration, who enters which kind of work, how, and why.

Three very diverse cases drawn from the research we have conducted in the Migrating out of Poverty project illustrate why we need a deeper understanding of these dynamics. These include the relationships that exist within households between genders and generations, as well as cultural norms dictating gender roles and responsibilities at different life stages.

The first example is an adolescent girl in an orthodox family in Ethiopia who is faced with the choice of marrying someone much older than herself or running away and trying her luck in the city so she might make something of her life. She leaves without her parents’ permission and approaches a broker who specialises in helping girls in her situation to find work in the city. She ends up as a domestic maid, working for a pittance and being on call all day, but her employer allows her to attend night school.

How do individuals in the global south – whether they migrate or not – conceive of ‘development’, and what role do they see for migration in achieving it?

By contrast, young unmarried teenagers in Nepal migrate for construction work through agents locally known as “Naike” where the migration is socially accepted and arranged by relatives. They often work for little or no money, accepting food and accommodation as remuneration because the main purpose of their migration is to experience city life, become smarter, and behave in status-enhancing ways as compared to their peers in the village.

A third example is from Bangladesh, where men migrate to the Gulf states or Singapore to work in construction. To access these labour markets, they often pay brokers large sums of money acquired by borrowing from family networks or selling assets. They migrate with long-term ambitions of improving their material and social standard of living, but first they must often face months or even years of uncertainty which pushes them and their families into situations of vulnerability. Those who find work may spend much longer repaying their loans than they had originally planned.

All of these cases contain elements of the types of exploitation that are commonly referred to as ‘modern slavery’; working for little or no pay, being on almost permanent call, and incurring large debts to be paid off through work. But conversations with these migrants show that they do not think of themselves as slaves, and most have a clear sense of where they have come from and where they want to go. The early years are usually the toughest, especially for those without the support of extended social networks. Some may never succeed due to shocks such as injury or ill health. But over time most will begin to save, to send remittances, or to build up enough reserves to attempt a further move. Although many of them will not achieve their highest ambitions, they may decide that wherever they have ended up is nonetheless better than going back home.

In each case, a person’s individual circumstances, experiences, and aspirations, as well as how they use migration to achieve their goals, are very different. We need more evidence on the outcomes of such migration in the longer term. Rather than assuming that everyone in such work will end up poorer or in a worse situation than before, we need concrete evidence on change over time. There is also a far more fundamental question that needs to be asked: how do individuals in the global south – whether they migrate or not – conceive of ‘development’, and what role do they see for migration in achieving it?

Visions of development and migration as a route to development

The present discourse on slavery, trafficking, and other forms of exploitative work, as well as on migration, is underpinned by Western and neoliberal ideas related to freedom and development. These tell us that migrants should be free to choose their occupation, to be able to engage in it without paying, and that the conditions in which they work should be decent. The idea that someone would willingly pay a broker a lot of money for the chance to migrate and work under unfree conditions, while pursuing and hopefully fulfilling their long-term goals, seems to not make sense in such a paradigm.

Recruitment fees have recently come into focus as a primary mechanism through which migrants end up in debt that is impossible to repay. We assume that those trapped in debt are using it mainly to keep body and soul together, and they migrate year after year just for survival. The Indian construction sector is commonly held up as an example of this phenomenon, an area where workers are widely analysed to be on a path to further impoverishment due to their perpetual indebtedness to brokers.

When we speak to construction workers, however, it becomes quickly obvious that they view their own development and the pathways to it rather differently. Interviews with migrant construction workers in Telangana show that they view brokers as an important source of credit and better than traditional moneylenders, who humiliate them. For them, taking out and paying off debt through work allows them to spend on marriages above their social status, to invest in housing and education, and to potentially raise their standing or standard of living in the longer term.

The lesson here is that listening to the voices of migrants and understanding why they enter certain forms of work is critical to understanding where interventions should be made and where they shouldn’t. It is important to hear first-hand what migrants have to say about their own experiences, rather than only relying on civil society organisations that claim to represent workers or advocate on their behalf. These groups are often staffed by educated, urban people who may have world views more closely resembling those of the international development community than those of rural, disadvantaged workers. Without a deeper understanding of these complexities, we run the risk of putting up barriers to forms of work that may have real potential for development for people who otherwise have very limited opportunities for effecting real change in their lives.

About the author

Priya Deshingkar is Research Director of the DFID-funded Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium; principal investigator for the ‘Capitalising human mobility for poverty alleviation and inclusive development in Myanmar (CHIME)’ project; and senior research fellow at the School of Global Studies. She has decades of fieldwork experience in Asia as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Her research focuses on migration and poverty, especially with regard to precarious occupations, migration, labour rights and agency.


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