Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Funding the future of work means addressing gaps in the present of work

Investing in frontline communities builds resilience and increases opportunities for non-exploitative work.

Amol Mehra
1 March 2019, 5.55pm
Rug-making in Mongolia.
Byamba-ochir Byambasuren for ILO/Flickr. (cc by-nc-nd)

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

Our economic globalisation has raised hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. It has also left far too many with far too little. The global labour market teems with workers seeking employment to lift their lives beyond subsistence, yet the contexts in which they search for work make them highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The predatory and pernicious side of economic globalisation thrives on an endless supply of fragmented, marginalised and invisible labour. No sector is immune to this reality because it is a hallmark of our market system. It’s a design feature of the global economy, but it need not be.

The statement by the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation and Sage Fund properly underscores the challenges presented by our current economic paradigm and draws attention to the various levers that drive and reinforce inequalities. Helpfully, the statement also articulates “opportunity areas” that are primed to address the design feature mentioned above.

The Freedom Fund supports work across these opportunity areas. Working towards our mission to end modern slavery, we have a front-row seat to the emergence of powerful solutions for ensuring fairness, equity, and justice for all workers.

In Thailand, we work in the seafood sector where labour abuses, including forced and bonded labour, are rife. Migrant workers in the seafood sector scour the seas on fishing vessels for weeks at a time, catching the seafood served in restaurants and sold by retailers across the world. These workers have no bargaining power, no formal recognition and very little social protection.

In Ethiopia, we focus on a population of women and girls who, seeking economic opportunity, migrate to the Middle East for domestic work. In transit and on arrival, these women are at high risk of being abused and falling into situations of slavery. Most emigration takes place within an unsafe, irregular system that leaves emigrants vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual violence.

In southern India, we work with frontline communities to address labour exploitation in parts of the garment industry. Across the region, tens of thousands of girls and young women have been recruited into fraudulent employment schemes in some of the industry’s cotton spinning mills. These workers are buried so deep in apparel supply chains that global retailers trying to address abuses across their operations claim they have little influence against these instances of exploitation.

Across all these contexts, we see how the opportunity areas in the joint funders statement are present. Supporting work along these lines can drive real and meaningful reform.

First, we see the drivers that lead to abuse. These include the decentralised nature of economic production; the lack of meaningful economic opportunities in communities around the world; weak education about rights; low commitment and resources from governments to enforce protections; and targeted and destructive efforts to undermine worker organising and power.

Next, we see how frontline communities themselves are best placed to address these challenges. It is therefore crucial to invest in the frontlines, including workers and civil society, and to develop solutions with them to tackle the drivers of abuse. This could be by investing in efforts to build worker power, and by supporting workers to organise, claim their rights, and challenge the systems that lead to abuse as we are doing in Thailand. This could also mean investing in community-based economic models, or supporting prevention programmes and alternative livelihoods to build resilience among vulnerable groups as we’re doing in Ethiopia. Finally this could include supporting civil society to advocate and engage with factory owners, global retailers and local officials to drive reforms as we’re doing in southern India.

As we embark on this fourth industrial revolution, we must take note of the challenges of work – and their effects on vulnerable workers specifically – in the present. Exploitation thrives across sectors and regions, and our efforts as funders aren’t adding up to enough. We need more action, faster and at scale, to ensure that the future of work is less bleak than the present. The key to success is understanding the contexts and consequences of current economic models, and directing resources to frontline efforts that confront the drivers of exploitation. Only then can we possibly ensure that the future of work is a hopeful one.

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. The foundation's support is not tacit endorsement within.

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