Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Combating trafficking requires addressing social inequality: Q&A | Part III

Many factors drive the current trafficking industry, but its fundamental root is human poverty. To address this means to tackle the structural inequalities of our globalised world through 'pro-poor' growth and social inclusion.

Helga Konrad
23 October 2014

Activists rally against bonded labour in Hyderabad, Pakistan. Rajput Yasir/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Helga Konrad is a former minister for women’s issues and federal parliamentarian in Austria. She chaired the EU Stability Pact Task Force on Anti-Trafficking for South Eastern Europe from 2000-04 and was the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Representative for the Fight Against Trafficking in Persons from 2004-06. She now works as an independent consultant on anti-trafficking. This is the final installment of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery’s three-part interview with Dr. Konrad.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: On the subject of root causes, there are those who argue that crimes like forced labour are inevitable under capitalism, just as trafficking is inevitable in a world of closed borders. What do you think? Can you imagine any utopian solutions, like the Universal Basic Income?

Helga Konrad: It is a fact that human trafficking has taken on an added dimension in this era of globalisation. Its disruptive effects, such as weak economies and few job opportunities in many (developing) countries, have been responsible for sweeping changes not only at the economic but also at the social level. On the one hand, these changes have led to rising standards of living in industrialized countries. On the other hand, they are unevenly distributed both around the world and within different countries. The new globalized economy has increased income disparities between the richest and poorest countries. Increasing numbers of 'new poor' and 'working poor', that is people living below the poverty line and people with extremely low incomes, have become a sad reality in many countries. Social tensions within countries are multiplying.

The causes of trafficking are complex, and there are numerous contributing factors that have to be analysed and taken into account in political decision making. These include: unequal economic development of different countries; mass unemployment in many countries of origin; inequality, discrimination; and gender-based violence; prevailing market mechanisms; and patriarchal structures in source and destination countries. The demand side, including the promotion of sex tourism in many countries of the world, is also important. However, the primary root cause of human trafficking is poverty.

We all know that poverty runs deep in many countries around the world, where social indicators lag far behind and many young people are unemployed. Thus, it is no wonder that grey economic activities and a flourishing black market have become important economic factors. Informal employment has become a major source of income for lower-income groups in most developing and transition economies. Some of the disturbing consequences of widespread poverty are corruption, economic crime and organized crime. These are growing at an alarming rate. They are factors that hamper good governance while destabilizing and attenuating the further development of institutional and economic structures, but which are indispensable in ensuring sustainable growth.

Economic growth will certainly not suffice to address the social shortcomings. On the contrary, economic programmes sometimes exacerbate existing problems. The liquidation of entire sectors of the economy has often required the cessation of needed social services. Thus, instead of generating formal employment such programmes have shifted work to the informal and casual sectors.

In certain regions the reform processes are severely impeded by wars, crises and armed conflicts. Regions where economic possibilities are scant and where the social network is broken, as it is often the case in post-war societies, are often sources for human trafficking. Wars and crises change the social structure of people's lives dramatically and make many of them extremely vulnerable and easy prey to traffickers.

The key to sustained economic development is social inclusion, thus socially-balanced economic programmes are needed. Experts believe that even a marginal liberalisation of international labour flows would create gains for the world economy far larger than those from trade negotiations. The challenge is to fight for economic development and social inclusion on a broad front. Efforts would have to include combating job discrimination and disproportionate access to education, as well as measures to counter the disproportionate impact of economic and social policies.

Growth per se does not automatically increase the incomes of the poorest and most marginalized groups. What is needed is ‘pro-poor growth’, or growth that includes all groups in both production and consumption. Public spending to protect the most vulnerable members of the society should be seen as an investment rather than a burden on the public purse. Women, an under-tapped resource of human capital, offer a specific potential for economic development. Thus prevention and education programmes will not simply have to address the risks of human trafficking, but also empower people to make well-informed choices. Money flows have to be monitored, comprehensive poverty-reduction strategies must be developed, and income-generation programmes ought to be set up. These are certainly only a few suggestions which, in themselves, will not put a stop to human trafficking. However, in view of the fact that adverse economic conditions facilitate the trafficking of human beings, they are worth considering.

BTS: In contrast to the utopian, there has been a real emphasis lately in policy and business circles on the importance of voluntary ‘codes of conduct’. The idea is that in an age of competitivity-focussed, ‘light-touch regulation’, companies should be left to police their own supply chains and manage their labour relations independently. What do you make of this? Is there any real chance that severe exploitation can be overcome by leaving businesses to themselves?

HK: Evidence collected over the past decade shows that a substantial proportion of the workers who are trafficked or abused are contract workers. This means that they are not directly employed by the business for which they are working. Instead, they are supplied by an agency or middleman. Some are recruitment or employment agencies that are formally registered as businesses. Others, which are unlicensed, do not necessarily ensure that workers are neither trafficked nor charged high fees for their placement or equipment. When this happens they are often unable to leave the job and are thus in forced labour.

However, mandating compliance instead of relying on self-regulation in the recruitment industry is anathema to most governments and political parties. This is true even when combating practices similar to slavery, which they condemn. In most European countries the authorities have declined to introduce statutory regulation, despite the fact that studies clearly reveal that self-regulation alone is problematic.

Voluntary codes of conduct adopted by the employment and the recruitment industry as a whole might discourage activities associated with human trafficking. This would be true if governments urged them to identify and promote good practices, as well as report publicly and regularly on both progress and on failings. Governments would also have to advise relevant law enforcement agencies to monitor the employment and recruitment industry with a view to prosecuting criminal activity. However, this does not seem likely to be as effective as statutory regulation.


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