Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Confronting the root causes of forced labour: the meaning of freedom

Where does the force in 'forced labour' come from? Those who believe that poverty and globalisation are the root causes of forced labour need a broader understanding of freedom and coercion.

Genevieve LeBaron Penelope Kyritsis Cameron Thibos Neil Howard
19 March 2019, 4.09pm
Artwork by Carys Boughton.
All rights reserved.

Many international agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) simultaneously endorse the accepted legal definition of forced labour and the claim that poverty is its primary root cause. We argue that this stance is highly contradictory, and that those who believe that economic dynamics like poverty are the root cause of forced labour need a broader understanding of freedom and coercion in order to better make sense of the phenomena they seek to address.

Damaging definitions

Forced labour is defined in international law as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. The guardian of this definition, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has further elaborated that the threat of penalty “can take various forms, whether physical, psychological, financial or other”.[1] However, it has also made clear that it understands coercion primarily as restricted to individualised acts perpetrated by governments or employers. According to its Committee of Experts:

An external constraint or indirect coercion interfering with a worker’s freedom to “offer himself voluntarily” may result not only from an act of the authorities … but also from an employer’s practice … However, the employer or the State are not accountable for all external constraints or indirect coercion existing in practice: for example, the need to work in order to earn one’s living.[2] (emphasis added)

What is most disturbing about this is that it negates the key form of coercion found in market society, namely economic necessity. The ILO takes it as a given that people will be forced to sell their labour to survive unless they are wealthy enough to avoid having to do so. Yet this idea – that ‘real’ coercion can only ever be perpetrated by one individual against another – prevents the ILO and likeminded institutions from understanding where the force in ‘forced labour’ comes from in a large number of cases.

A simple scenario from one of the poorer regions of the world will suffice to make this point concrete. Imagine you are a subsistence farmer with a young family to support. You have no money and your crops earn very little, in part because much of the return is paid to the multinational companies supplying you with fertiliser and seed. If everyone in your household remains fit and healthy you can just about get by, but your daughter has just fallen seriously ill. Remember, this is a poor and rural area and there is no clinic nearby. There is a hospital in the nearest town but it is expensive and far away, and there is no social safety net to pay for her care or for your travel. This leaves you with only one option – to borrow money. But doing so creates new problems, since the only person willing to lend to someone in your position charges a hefty sum. And as you both know, you will never be able to repay him, so he offers you a choice: either you work his crops or you make clothes in his brother’s factory for a year without pay. Or, your daughter could die. What do you do? And who here is guilty of coercion?

It is important to emphasise that this is not a whimsical example. A wealth of research shows that people all over the world routinely make choices such as this, submitting themselves to precisely these kinds of exploitative labour relationships because doing so represents their best or only available option.[3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] Under conditions where menace of penalty are also present (such as the use of violence, intimidation, or threats of non-payment of due wages), the political establishment refers to them as ‘forced labourers’ and holds only the moneylender responsible for their plight. But is that appropriate? This report argues that it is not. Instead, we argue that pinpointing blame in this individualised way is neither an acceptable nor an accurate distribution of responsibility. The farmer above was given a choice and he took it. Although the moneylender may have taken advantage of the fact that the farmer had no better option, the fact that the farmer had no better option is not the fault of the moneylender. To focus narrowly on the moneylender is thus to miss the deeper, underlying structures that make his predatory offer possible.

In our analysis, the real problem is less that the farmer was ‘forced’ by the moneylender to do work that he did not want to do, though this type of lending obviously takes advantage of the farmer’s desperation, and the use of intimidation, violence, or threats is not appropriate under any circumstance. Rather, it is that this exploitative exchange was the best choice the farmer had. And responsibility for that fact lies with the power-brokers organising our social world, who have ensured that money is a pre-requisite to survival and yet left the farmer with none of it, with no healthcare and with no social protection.[11]

Poverty and freedom

Let’s now return to poverty and root causes. We said at the outset that there is a contradiction between accepting the ILO definition of and approach to forced labour and believing that poverty is its underlying root cause. At the centre of this contradiction is the way that freedom is typically understood.

In mainstream political thinking – and certainly in the thinking that structures international law[12] and policy around forced labour – freedom is understood in negative terms, i.e. as ‘freedom from’ something.[13] Accordingly, we are understood to be free to the extent that no one interferes with us, and unfree to the extent that they do. Negative conceptions of freedom inform the dominant neoclassical understandings of the market that were developed by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. They argued that capitalist markets are characterised by voluntary, free and equal exchange between individuals, and that workers are free so long as they experience an “absence of coercion” from other individuals.[14]

Negative conceptions of freedom, however, do not square with the idea of poverty as a root cause of forced labour. A root cause is a fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem – an underlying, original source of action which sets in motion a chain of other actions and leads to a particular event. But poverty is no more than an abstract concept. It has no power on its own, and certainly cannot force anyone to labour involuntarily or under the menace of penalty.

When we say that poverty is a root cause of forced labour, we are really saying that we understand the poor to be pushed into situations of exploitative or forced work by the fact that they lack viable alternatives.

As such, when we say that poverty is a root cause of forced labour, we are really saying that we understand the poor to be pushed into situations of exploitative or forced work by the fact that they lack viable alternatives. We therefore acknowledge that an abstract freedom from interference – as might be found in a constitution entitling all citizens to be ‘free’ – is not enough to guarantee the exercise of that freedom. Only the freedom to resist interference can accomplish that. This acknowledgement that true ‘freedom from’ only exists with an accompanying ‘freedom to’ is of major significance, since it means that within the story that ‘poverty is a root cause of forced labour’ there exists an enormously powerful and more positive theory of freedom – a freedom anchored in the power to say no.[15]


What are the implications of this theory of freedom? First of all, it compels us to expand our understanding of key concepts, such as coercion and vulnerability, from the personal to the structural. Individual instances of exploitation rely on one side having no viable or superior alternatives to what is on offer, and thus extremely limited power to say no. Yet unless we believe this lack of alternatives to occur naturally like the rain, we have no choice but to acknowledge that it derives from the human arrangement of social, political and economic affairs. The ‘bad guy’ in this story, therefore, is not just the unscrupulous person offering exploitative work to people who need to take it. It is the system which ensures that taking it is the best option those people have.

This recognition, in turn, requires us to rethink vulnerability as well. Vulnerability is commonly understood as a static or individual notion attached to individual types of people, often rooted in gendered and racialised narratives of victimhood. (Think ‘women and children’, for example, in the standard discourse).[16, 17] But according to our thinking, a fuller understanding of vulnerability must attend to the fact that it is relational, and that it could entail inhabiting a position within society that involves structural limits being placed on one’s available alternatives.[18] Poverty – which we conceive of as the state of being denied access to society’s wealth – is one such structural limit. But there are others, as we will be discussing throughout this report. Together, they combine to ensure the supply of workers who can be subjected to labour exploitation, including its most severe forms.

Finally, if the limits on people’s freedom to say no are neither randomly nor naturally distributed, we need to ask ourselves who or what is responsible for them? Who is responsible for arranging social, political and economic affairs such that only a small number of people enjoy the power to say no to the coercion inherent to the market while the vast majority do not? Who or what, ultimately, shapes the ‘root causes’ of forced labour? As you will see throughout this report, we hold governments, employers and the powerful very much to account. And in doing so, we challenge the notion that capitalist markets are harmonious, equal and natural institutions, and that their expansion entails a solution to the problem of forced labour.

Next chapter: Concepts 2 of 2: Globalisation and the rise of supply chains

  1. ILO (2012) ‘ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and methodology’, 19. ↩︎
  2. Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) (2007) General Survey on Forced Labour, Geneva: ILO, 20–21. ↩︎
  3. R. J. Steinfeld writes in his book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (1991) that they choose the lesser of their two “disagreeable alternatives” (301). ↩︎
  4. S. Castle & A. Diarra (2003) ‘The International Migration Of Young Malians: Tradition, Necessity Or Rite Of Passage?’ ↩︎
  5. T. Bastia (2005) ‘Child Trafficking or Teenage Migration? Bolivian Migrants in Argentina’, International Migration, 43(4), 57-87. ↩︎
  6. A. De Lange (2007) ‘Child Labour Migration and Trafficking in Rural Burkina Faso’, International Migration, 45(2), 147–167. ↩︎
  7. S. Morganti (2011) ‘La mobilità dei minori in Benin. Migrazione o tratta ?’, in ed. Alice Bellagamba Migrazioni: Dal lato dell’Africa, (Padova: Edizioni Altravista), 127-156. ↩︎
  8. R. Huijsmans & S. Baker (2012) ‘Child Trafficking: ‘Worst Form’ of Child Labour, or Worst Approach to Young Migrants?’, Development and Change, 43, 919-946. ↩︎
  9. S. Okyere (2017) ‘‘Shock and Awe’: A critique of the Ghana-centric child trafficking discourse’, Anti-Trafficking Review, 9. ↩︎
  10. H. Lewis et al. (2014) ‘Hyper-precarious lives: Migrants, work and forced labour in the Global NorthProgress in Human Geography, 39(5), 580-600. ↩︎
  11. D. McNally (2006) Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism, 2nd ed., Winnipeg: ARP Books. ↩︎
  12. ILO (1930) ‘Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)’. ↩︎
  13. As Isaiah Berlin’s famous (1969) essay ‘Two concepts of liberty’ explains: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree un-free; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved”. This theory informs the ILO’s (1930) Forced Labour Convention, which defines the concept as shown above, as well as the ILO’s (1956) Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. This defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”. ↩︎
  14. See, for instance, M. Friedman (1962) Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago University Press. ↩︎
  15. K. Widerquist (2013) Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ↩︎
  16. L. H. Malkki (1996) 'Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization', Cultural Anthropology, 11(3), 377-404. ↩︎
  17. M. Ticktin (2016) ‘What’s Wrong with Innocence’, Cultural Anthropology. ↩︎
  18. This is increasingly (though rarely explicitly) being recognised in discussions around the legal concept of “the abuse of a position of vulnerability”, included in the Palermo Protocol as one of the “means” by which trafficking takes place. See the UNODC (2012) issue paper ‘Abuse of a position of vulnerability and other “means” within the definition of trafficking in persons’. ↩︎
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