Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

INTERVIEW: Why the AFL-CIO both sits at the table and marches in the streets

Trade unions know our labour system is broken. But how can we make it work again?

Cathy Feingold
26 November 2020, 10.43am
AFL-CIO rallies for jobs, justice, and equality in Maryland.
Maryland GovPics/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

As part of our anniversary special on the Palermo Protocols, we caught up with the international director of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, to discuss the labour movement’s engagement with trafficking, the questionable motives of philanthrocapitalism, and importance of being in the room where it happens.

Neil Howard (BTS): You’ve been a part of the American labour movement for a long time. If the goal is to improve workers’ lives, do you think we need to push for incremental changes on ‘the inside’ or to use the freedom of ‘the outside’ to fight for a new vision?

Cathy Feingold (International Director, AFL-CIO): I think you need both. The world is experiencing a crisis of multilateralism right now – our existing multilateral framework is not fit for purpose. It was built in a very different moment. So, as activists and as organised labour, we need to be working on the inside to renew this framework. We need to try to build out a global architecture that’s useful to us, so that we can then use it as a tool for our organising. At the same time, we absolutely have to be on the outside pushing for a new vision. What should the next iteration of a multilateral approach look like? What systems do we need to build?

It’s not either/or. If we were having an academic conversation, you and I would just talk about the system we want and need. And we do need to spend time re-envisioning the global framework so that we are constantly realigning our strategies. But the reality is, I have to go to work and try to implement something to make change happen. We need both insiders and outsiders for that to work. Insiders, mind you, need to have their eyes wide open to the fact that the system they’re working within is not fit for purpose. It was built for a different set of reasons. And it’s struggling right now.

Neil: Could you concretely spell out the benefits of working within the system for people that don’t know much about it? From an advocacy standpoint, what works about working on the inside?

Cathy: For example, as a labour movement we believe that there is power in negotiation and in tripartism between workers, governments, and business. Many of our current systems were built in a moment where there was respect for tripartism. Governments, trade unions and civil society, and business leaders came together to try to shape responses to some of the biggest global challenges that we had.

There is still value in that. Take the International Labour Organization’s new convention and recommendation to end violence and harassment in the workplace. It’s being ratified all over the world, and that will give movements new tools and new ways of talking about transforming their reality. That’s important. It’s important when you go to countries and say, ‘employers agreed to this, governments agreed to this. This is not just an outsider approach, but it’s something that we’ve all shaped together.’ We need to have that ability to build global architecture with various players at the table.

Unfortunately, the multilateral system is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and unable to respond to the enormous challenges the world faces. Just look at the World Trade Organization these days, or some other UN bodies and processes. And so we constantly need to be on the outside asking, ‘what are the tools that we need? Which tools don’t we have to build the vision or the framework that we need to really transform our communities?’

Neil: So you need people on both the inside and the outside, as well as a degree of coordination between the two. The people on the outside provide the vision and open up the Overton window, while those on the inside are actually able to leverage power for change.

Cathy: Correct. Often when shaping policies, if you just had an outsider approach, if you just protested in the street and no one listened to you, would you really be able to implement and shape a new vision? Probably not. But if you pair up protestors putting pressure on the multilateral system with insiders trying their best to build a framework that we’ll be able to use on the outside, that back and forth can be really powerful.

If the moment an agreement is announced you shout, ‘No! We hate it because it’s part of the neoliberal system, and so we’re just going to hate it,’ you have ceded whatever space you had to be listened to.

Neil: In theory it sounds excellent, but to what extent does coordination actually exist between loud voices saying radical things on the outside and those taking the longer road on the inside?

Cathy: As far as the labour movement goes, I think we often have one foot in each place. We are marching in the street with our allies, whether we’re unhappy at what’s being discussed at the G20 or at a climate event. And we’re in the inside trying to negotiate with employers and governments to really get something through that would improve the well-being of workers and their families. The labour movement sees the power of being in both places, and I do think there is intentional coordination with civil society organisations. We can’t do this alone and building coalitions across movements is critical to advancing a transformative agenda.

Something I’ve learned through experience is that refusal from the outset is a bad strategy. I’ll use the trade discussions, in which I’ve been emersed for many years, as an example. If you say no before you reach a table to see what a document looks like or what you might be able to do, then you really cede a lot of space. If the moment they announce a trade agreement you shout, ‘No! We hate it because it’s part of the neoliberal system, and so we’re just going to hate it,’ you have ceded whatever space you had to be listened to. You need to always stay grounded on the members and values that we represent. We often end up having to oppose agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements but that is after we put forward our proposals.

Sometimes that may be necessary if it’s just a horrible, horrible proposal. But most of the time I would say that you forfeit your ability to have any role in shaping things if you don’t maintain a strategic insider-outsider approach.

The current set of crises – the pandemic, growing economic, racial, and gender inequality, climate change, attacks on democracy, etc. – provide an important opportunity for movements to not only critique the current system but to put forward bold and transformative ideas. We need to make sure that as we emerge from these crises that we are not going back to a past model but rather building towards a new social contract that puts the well-being of workers and the environment at its core.

Neil: How do you apply that general lesson to the field of trafficking and modern slavery, and specifically to the Palermo Protocol on trafficking? One outsider critique of these concepts is that they exclusively focus attention on the worst of the worst. And, as those concepts have become dominant, they have drawn attention away from widespread forms of everyday exploitation. They have caused us to not only forget about everyday forms of inequality but to naturalise them by focusing on the extremes. What’s your response to that critique?

Cathy: Workplace exploitation is a continuum, right? Just look at what’s happening in the Uyghur region of China – the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) – where the Chinese government runs a massive programme to detain and persecute well over 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims and Turkic language speakers. Aside from running the largest internment and forced labor programme of an ethnic and religious group since the Holocaust, China has broadly deployed state-of-the-art surveillance hardware and artificial intelligence software to monitor the lives of workers and their families. This benefits more than just the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises. Multinational corporations (MNCs) from around the world profit greatly from the forced labour in this region and are reluctant to respond to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region’s call to action that demands that they leave the region and end the use of forced labor in their supply chains.

The system of repression and forced labour and the complicity of major multinational brands stems from the same set of economic policies that allows labour to be exploited in the first place. What I’ve found in the trafficking and modern-day slavery space is there’s not much critique of the actual economic system that allows this to happen. There’s little critique of the relationship between labour and capital. And, I would say, it’s not surprising when you look at the roots of the human rights movement. The human rights movement was meant to soften the economic model rather than overthrow it. It was meant to be a Band-Aid on it, something that makes it a little bit better.

In the US context, a lot of the anti-trafficking money in recent years has come from foundations that got their start with major funding from Silicon Valley, which historically has been anti-union. The major players in Silicon Valley want workers to remain flexible and want them to be independent contractors. The recent campaign in California over Proposition 22 shows the amount of resources that many Silicon Valley companies are willing to invest to ensure that labour stays cheap and flexible. Companies like Doordash, Instacart, Uber and Lyft spent close to $200 million to put this proposition on California’s ballot in the recent November 2020 elections. It was the most expensive ballot measures in US history, and was written by companies seeking to increase their profits by denying workers the right to paid sick leave, a minimum wage, and basic safety protections. They apply this same model throughout their supply chains, where they intentionally distance themselves from taking responsibility for the workers who produce for them. So many of these companies weaken labour regulations while at the same time saying they want to eradicate slavery because it’s so horrible. They fail to see that they are shaping rules of the economy that lead to labour exploitation.

Neil: So why is Silicon Valley pumping money into slavery and trafficking specifically, do you think?

Cathy: Because it’s something that most people can get behind from a moral standpoint. You can back it without having to critique the system. And, even in a moment of real tension in the United States, it’s one of these issues that continues to have bipartisan support.

Talking about people being enslaved is a way of building and channelling basic moral outrage. Rich people do not want you to have moral outrage about the economic model that they’re profiting from. They want a complete disconnect. They want you to believe that the reason there is modern-day slavery has nothing to do with the way the rules are shaped in the global economy.

Rich people don't want you to have moral outrage about the economic model they profit from.

That’s been one of the challenges for the anti-trafficking movement. There are exceptions – there are some fantastic groups doing really important work – but most of them don’t come out with a huge critique of the neoliberal model, right? It’s about freeing the slaves, that whole framework. But if you free a group of slaves and don’t change the system that allows people to be slaves, you’re not addressing the systemic problem.

Neil: So in other words modern-day slavery is often being used as a fig leaf for distracting attention away from the structures underpinning all exploitation.

Cathy: Correct. There are many reasons people get into this field. The labour movement believes that to really address forced labour and trafficking, strengthening workers’ rights must be part of the solution and workers must be part of shaping the needed policies and programmes. Some organisations working in the field definitely come from a faith-based perspective or a moral calling, and they do not see worker rights as a key issue. I believe many groups don’t want to address root causes. They instead want to frame it entirely from a moral standpoint and not engage in the needed work to transform a system that has produced enormous wealth and at the same time extreme exploitation.

I find it so interesting that the libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley has been a major funder of modern-day slavery and anti-trafficking work. Remember when everybody was clapping their hands a few months ago about essential workers? At the same time there was huge opposition from the business community to a temporary emergency health and safety standard that would have helped keep people safe and healthy during the pandemic. Huge opposition. But these same people were taking out hundred-thousand-dollar ads in the Washington Post saying we salute our frontline workers who are getting sick without supporting regulations to ensure worker safety during a pandemic. It’s rank hypocrisy.

The pandemic has also further exposed the lack of protection for migrant workers throughout global supply chains and in the care economy. Many of these same companies that fund anti-trafficking programmes also benefit from weak protections for migrant workers. The system of work visas, recruitment fees, and the constant threat of deportation make migrant workers vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour.

To go even broader, it’s the same critique we have about traditional corporate social responsibility. CSR is not about systemic change. It’s about public relations and not about transforming the way you do business. That is why the labour movement supports models that are worker-driven and binding, that are shaped by workers, and that come with real consequences when there are violations.

Neil: Are we thus doing a disservice to progressive forces and to labour generally by using the terms forced labour, human trafficking, or modern-day slavery, given that they are so clearly exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo?

Cathy: ‘Forced labour’ is a term that’s well defined, and its elimination is a fundamental principle of the ILO. It just says what it is: you’re forced to labour. That’s clear.

Now ‘modern slavery’, that’s a very problematic term. The United States is still grappling with slavery and what that has meant for our economic system. Our current system was built on exploitation of labour and particularly the labour of people of colour, who were enslaved. And you can see how our system continues to be built around that. So I’m not sure we need the word ‘modern-day’. I don’t know why we need to change that framework. We’re trying to take on an economic system that creates huge wealth and profit for a few through enslavement and exploitation. There’s nothing modern about that.

The current debates in the United States are, in a very positive way, causing people to really look at what it has meant that this country’s system is built off the enslavement of people of colour. That’s the other piece that I never hear from the trafficking and modern-day slavery movement. Perhaps I’m just not in the right rooms for these conversations, but we don’t hear about the intersection with race in all of this. You can see this clearly in Mauritania or around ethnicity in the Uyghur region in China. You have to create a construct of others to justify subjecting them to the most severe forms of exploitation in your system. There’s nothing modern about that.

So I’ve never quite understood why ‘modern-day’ has been added to ‘slavery’. We’ve had this neoliberal model for over 40 years, and within the context of that model it was framed as modern. But we know that the whole system is built on that.

Neil: That’s actually one reason for pause around the definition of forced labour. It’s a clear enough idea, but the definition is inherently individualising. It’s about interpersonal coercion, not the structural coercion inherent to capitalism and market life. This individual focus hides why some people have no other option but to take bad and exploitative work.

Cathy: There are of course individual power dynamics involved in certain instances, but it all comes back to a system. Again, I’m focused these days on working with a global coalition to eliminate forced labour in the Uyghur region of China. We knew from the beginning of the campaign that we would need to move beyond a campaign of moral shaming to one focused on ending the economic structures supporting forced labour. Sometimes people ask why we’re doing a corporate campaign around this. Well, it’s because we are trying to undo the ways that corporations benefit from a system of forced labour in that region.

The labour movement approaches this as we do with everything, by looking at systems and the need for a collective response. You’re not going to address forced labour by having individuals raise their hands and say, ‘please change my work conditions.’ We’ve never found that to be the way that you shape power relations. If trafficking affects some of the most vulnerable workers, including migrants, then you must look at programmes that support migrant worker organising and power building in migrant communities. So I understand the importance of that critique, but I’m not sure that’s how the labour movement has ever viewed it. The way we take on forced labour is from a systems approach and from a collective response.

Neil: We’ve reached the twentieth anniversary of the Palermo Protocol on trafficking. What’s your take? Has it been a success? Or has it caused more trouble than it is worth?

Cathy: Whenever you have one of these anniversaries, I think it’s important to pause and remind yourself that all these pieces of global architecture are flawed. They’re imperfect. They have been put through a tripartite or multilateral set of negotiations, and they’ve come out very watered down. So the real question we as movement should be asking is, ‘were we able to use the focus on this piece of global architecture to build effective movements?’

I’m less interested in the UN meetings of people flitting around and talking about it. I want to know if we used that global architecture to fuel effective global movements to end trafficking and to end the systems that allow trafficking and forced labour to occur. And if you ask that question, I would say we’re not there yet.

The way supply chains have been built allows precarious workers to have work one day and no work the next. Some of what goes on in the Uyghur region is simply astonishing. Our clothes and technology have been made with forced labour and all I hear are companies telling me, ‘well, you don’t know how complicated it is to leave China.’

We have not yet used Palermo to build effective movements to transform the system that allows this type of extreme labour exploitation to occur. And so we need to ask ourselves, in this current moment, is that a tool that is still effective? Is there something more that we need? I would say that if your movement does not have an analysis of power, and does not have an analysis of the intersection of how power works and of changing the economic system, then your movement does not have the elements it needs to carry out what was in the spirit of Palermo.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData