Week 1: Introducing the global challenge of forced and precarious labour
Human trafficking and 'modern slavery' are the tip of the iceberg. Dive into the course to see the full depth.
Modern slavery has recently emerged as a major source of popular fascination and political preoccupation. This rapid promotion to the front ranks of global conversations regarding exploitation has had profound consequences. Not all of these consequences have been positive or desirable. High profile campaigns against ‘modern slavery’ typically focus upon a relatively small number of ‘aberrant’ and ‘exceptional’ cases, which are assumed to stand apart from other ‘lesser’ abuses or ‘normal’ practices. This separation between the ‘exceptional’ and ‘everyday’ is central to the appeal of modern slavery as a political cause, because it concentrates attention on individual cases of the ‘worst of the worst’. Governments and corporations feel comfortable supporting campaigns against exceptional cases of modern slavery – rather than broader campaigns for migrant or workers’ rights – because this focus on exceptional cases effectively pushes larger global systems of exploitation, violence, discrimination and privilege into the background.
It is for this reason that someone like Ivanka Trump, whose ‘Trump’ branded products are made by precarious and vulnerable workers in places such as Indonesia, feels entirely comfortable denouncing modern slavery and human trafficking as an ‘ugly stain on civilisation.’ The ‘stain’ of modern slavery does not directly challenge the systems of labour exploitation that generate tremendous profits for the Trump brand. Targeting exceptional cases is not only very difficult in practical terms, it also tends to create an informal separation between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ cases. When slavery is the threshold against which all other categories of labour are measured, then systems of exploitation viewed as ‘bad but not all that bad’ may appear as unremarkable or even desirable. There are currently hundreds of millions of ‘free’ labourers across the globe who routinely endure terrible wages, precarious conditions, unsafe and unhealthy workspaces, sexual harassment and assault, and bullying and abuse. They may well be formally ‘free’ to leave, in the sense that they can quit their jobs and seek other options, but their precarious status is nonetheless likely to make it very risky for them to quit, and their alternative options may be no better. Despite their predicament, campaigns against modern slavery tend to exclude precarious ‘free’ labourers from their orbit of concern.
Both migrants and workers are widely understood to be deserving of certain types of rights. However, there remains significant disagreement regarding what those rights look like. On the one hand, we have the argument that all migrants deserve protections as migrants, and that all workers deserve protections as workers. On the other, we have the argument that there are some migrants and workers – usually a much smaller subcategory – who should be the focus of protection efforts. Campaigns against modern slavery specifically target some workers and migrants as deserving of protection: those who are forced to work, or to continue to work. The much larger group of precarious workers who do not meet this threshold are left out of the equation. And since these thresholds are hard to satisfy, the vast majority of migrants and workers get pushed to the margins.
This selective focus upon a small number of migrants and workers has been crucial to the overall fortunes of ‘modern slavery’ as a political cause. Governments and corporations who would be challenged by political campaigns seeking adequate protections for all vulnerable migrants and workers have determined that there are all kinds of political advantages to specifically focusing upon a much smaller number of individual cases of exceptional abuse: ‘modern slavery’. This is why campaigns targeting modern slavery have flourished at a time when governments have become increasingly hostile to migrants, and have greatly reduced their commitments to protecting workers, thereby further strengthening the power of corporations over workers.
Campaigns targeting modern slavery have flourished at a time when governments have become increasingly hostile to migrants.
This course aims to do things differently. Rather than focusing on individual criminals or ‘bad apple’ employers, we are instead interested in exploring how and why systems of labour exploitation operate, and what strategies are likely to be most effective in changing their overall design. Instead of concentrating our energies upon a subcategory within a larger population, this course is more interested in reflecting upon the rights and protections enjoyed by all migrant workers, sex workers, supply chain workers, and other workers. It is for this reason that we have structured this course around the central theme of forced and precarious labour in the global economy, since this larger canvas directs our attention towards the broader legal, political, economic and social systems which create conditions that enable and encourage patterns of labour exploitation and abuse. This means focusing upon issues such as ‘governance gaps’ in making supply chain workers vulnerable, the role of tied visas in making migrant workers vulnerable, and the role of laws which criminalise commercial sex in making sex workers vulnerable.
It is also important to emphasise that the course does not include all of the ever increasing number of practices which have recently been defined as forms of modern slavery or human trafficking. This is mostly for practical reasons. We cannot cover everything in an introductory course of this type, so a decision has been taken to specifically focus on key examples of global labour systems. We do not engage with other practices such as wartime abductions, forced marriage, or organ trafficking. We also do not specifically address questions relating to child labour, since this would require a new conversation which would further expand upon a curriculum that already covers a great deal of ground. Unless otherwise indicated, the primary focus here is adult workers.
Part 1. Introducing the course
View a transcript of Part 1
Hi, my name is Joel Quirk. I'm a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa and my main goal here is to welcome and introduce you to our course on forced and precarious labour in the global economy. I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to introduce you to the main objectives of this course and then following on from that I want to briefly walk you through the main themes and issues we're going to be grappling with over the next two months.
So when it comes to objectives, the main thing I would like to emphasise is that we are primarily interested in the terms upon which labour is structured and organised, and how workers and migrant workers contribute to global patterns of production and consumption, and, as a matter of design rather than by accident, are left in marginal precarious and vulnerable conditions.
So in this context there are three main things the course wants to do.
Firstly, we want to give you a better understanding of how and why patterns of exploitation take place. So it's really about the nuts and bolts of how labour systems are constructed and with what types of effects.
Secondly, we want to think through and reflect upon existing policies and strategies that have been developed in order to at least hopefully address various problems of exploitation vulnerability and the like. The general sense of this course is that a lot of existing interventions aren't particularly effective when it comes to addressing underlying forms of exploitation and vulnerability.
It's here we have our third main objective. We really want to get people taking this course to think about alternative ways of organising, alternative sets of solutions, and alternative campaigns that really delve a bit deeper in terms of better understanding why and how people are exploited, and then using that understanding to develop strategies that are more likely to challenge the underlying systems that leave people exploited and marginal.
So in pursuit of those goals we've organised a course that primarily focuses upon three main case studies.
The first of these is about labour exploitation and global supply chains, and about how large corporations structure their production processes in ways that leave workers exploited and vulnerable. Then we want to look at migration and migrant workers. We're specifically interested here in how governments have structured immigration systems and work visas in ways that leave migrants vulnerable to employment abuses, unable to articulate and defend their rights, and unable to effectively organise as workers due to the ways in which migrant labour systems have been constructed. A key theme of this course is what happens to workers and what happens to migrant workers is that they are exploited by design rather than by accident. It's not criminals, it's not individual employers, its systems and governments and corporations. Our third case study focuses primarily on the status of sex work. We think through the argument of sex work as work and about how additional rights and protections might be afforded to commercial sex workers in a context where it's the system that leaves them vulnerable rather than individual employers or individual clients.
Each case study takes place over two weeks. In the first case, in the first week we're going to focus on how and why abuses occur, and in the second week we're going to focus upon a range of different solutions, what's been tried, what might be tried, and what type of alternatives might work better when it comes to addressing the root causes of vulnerability and marginality.
That's our course. Both myself and the other instructors you'll encounter on this course are from a collective which goes under the name of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. The Beyond Trafficking and Slavery project, which is a partnership with openDemocracy, has been around for about three years now, and its primary goal is to better understand the underlying reasons why people are exploited and vulnerable and from that understanding to come up with more creative solutions which really get to the heart of how systems are constructed and from that to better address forms of exploitation and abuse. So I hope that feels like an introduction to a course that you are interested in taking and I look forward to engaging with all of you over the course of the next two months so thanks and welcome.
Part 2. Modern slavery and the politics of exception
View a transcript of Part 2
Welcome to week one of our course on forced and precarious labour in the global economy. One of the main goals of this week is to take you through some of the consequences and effects of different schemes for classifying labour exploitation and vulnerability.
In this week we want to think about how the ways in which we classify different practices has various effects in terms of politics, in terms of what gets defined as a problem, and in terms of what gets defined as normal and unremarkable and perhaps even desirable.
In this session I'm really interested in thinking through the limitations and complications associated with the most popular way of describing labour exploitation in the world today, and that is the categories and campaigns associated with human trafficking and modern slavery. These are extremely popular and they're very difficult to avoid, yet their popularity isn't necessarily a good sign of whether they're useful or effective.
The main thing I want to emphasise is the problems which arise when you try and draw a hard and fast and firm distinction between exceptional cases, which are commonly classified in terms of modern-day slavery in human trafficking, and everyday and unremarkable patterns of work and labour and mobility.
Modern slavery, in terms of how it defines and classifies problems, invites us to think about a small number of exceptional and deviant cases most commonly attributed to criminals. In doing so it tends to draw a hard line between the exceptional and the everyday, and both analytically and politically there are real problems with seeking to uphold this distinction.
To give you a sense of what some of these problems are, I want to take you through two recent examples which I hope will underscore some of the limitations of seeking to draw this hard and fast distinction between the exceptional and the everyday. The first comes in the form of Ivanka Trump, who recently gave a speech at the United Nations where she denounced modern slavery and human trafficking as splintering families, distorting global markets, undermining the rule of law, and strengthening transnational organised criminal networks.
I'm sure it was a good speech and I have no reason to question whether the sentiments expressed were genuine. What is important for the purposes of this course is the fact that Ivanka Trump and people like her don't understand the cause of modern slavery and human trafficking as something that directly affects them. This is important, because Ivanka Trump sits at the head of an elaborate system of supply chains and networks that produce all kinds of goods with the Trump name on them. The production of these goods, which most commonly takes place in sweatshops in places like China and Indonesia, is not understood to be part of the problem that campaigns against modern-day slavery and human trafficking are supposed to combat. So in campaigning against modern slavery and trafficking, you construct a problem which pushes the systems that produce goods and services, as well as the way those systems produce patterns of vulnerability, to the edges of the conversation.
These patterns of vulnerability and labour exploitation more generally are baked into the global economy. They're not exceptions, they're not deviations, they're part of the smooth and regular operations of the system. There's a real problem when someone like Ivanka Trump can declare her opposition to human trafficking without having to grapple with the broader processes whereby goods bearing her name are produced. So this problem, this diagnosis between the exceptional and everyday, creates all kinds of issues both politically and analytically.
A second example along similar lines but with a slightly different conclusion involves a recent campaign put together by the British government which invites citizens to spot the signs of modern slavery. This public awareness campaign is designed to get concerned citizens to look out for examples of abuse and exploitation. As part of this campaign, the government identifies the following signs of slavery: physical or psychological abuse, isolation, poor living conditions, limited or no personal effects, restricted freedom of movement, unusual travel times and a reluctance to seek help. All of these, according to the campaign, are signs of slavery.
The problem, however, is that they're not so much signs of an exceptional problem as symptoms of larger patterns of vulnerability and precarious living and working conditions. All of these signs can well be signs of problems. They can illustrate vulnerability. They can point to problems and exploitation. But it's really hard to draw a clear and consistent line between the exceptional category of modern slavery and all of the everyday and unremarkable, or ostensibly unremarkable, problems that are associated with migrant workers and poor and vulnerable workers throughout the globe.
It's really hard to say these are signs of slavery rather than symptoms of precarity. Physical and psychological abuse are common in communities throughout the globe. Illegal migrants, whatever their working or living conditions, are going to be reluctant to seek help. This is because help too often translates into them being deported or threatened with deportation. They're also going to work according to unusual travel times, since precarious and irregular migration rarely works on a clock. If they don't speak local languages or have local families and friends they're likely to be isolated. If they move long distances they're likely to have few or no personal effects. And if you're poor you are likely to endure poor living conditions.
So in all of these cases the signs of slavery aren't easily separated out from people at the bottom ends of labour markets – migrants seeking a better life and being exploited as a consequence of their status or visa conditions. Yet the campaign against modern slavery seeks to carve out an exception rather than focus upon the everyday and unremarkable forms of exploitation and vulnerability that are a characteristic feature of labour markets throughout the globe. In this context modern-day slavery and human trafficking are unlikely to be the best frame of reference. This is because they exclude too many issues and problems from the analysis, and because they seek to focus interventions upon an exceptional subset of cases.
What's really at issue here are the underlying reasons why people are vulnerable, exploited, and poor. As a consequence, a much better starting point is to contemplate the working conditions and experiences of all workers rather than try to focus upon an isolated subset which is assumed to rise to the threshold of exceptionality associated with modern slavery and human trafficking.
Part 3. Forced and precarious labour in the global economy
View a transcript of Part 3
In the previous video we considered some of the reasons why it may not be a good idea to classify forms of exploitation and vulnerability in terms of the popular categories of modern slavery or human trafficking.
There's a bunch of reasons why these categories may not be particularly useful, but in the previous video I was keen to highlight the ways in which thinking in terms of modern slavery or human trafficking establishes a sharp division between exceptional cases and everyday practices. Modern-day slavery and human trafficking are very much concerned with the exceptional. They focus upon what is regarded as the very worst of the worst, and this distinction between the exceptional and the everyday creates a situation where huge amounts of work is excluded from the orbit of concern associated with campaigns against trafficking and slavery.
If we accept that there might be problems with these categories then we have to ask what an alternative or preferable framework might look like. In this course, instead of doing slavery and trafficking we're more interested in thinking in terms of forced and precarious labour. Now, it's important to emphasise at the outset that there's not a sharp or hard distinction between forced labour on the one hand and precarious labour on the other. The conditions and constraints and broader factors apply in both instances, making them part of a continuum or spectrum rather than completely distinct and different.
What do we mean? In thinking about this issue we need to first recognise that work in the world today has certain characteristics. These characteristics are usefully albeit imperfectly described in terms of statistics. For example, the ILO estimated a couple of years ago that 75% of the global workforce is in temporary informal or unpaid work. This means that only a quarter of workers in the world today have the security of permanent contracts. In addition, it's also been calculated that four in ten young workers are either unemployed or working but living in poverty, while as many as 200 million people in the world are currently unemployed.
The 2008 financial crisis did not help this situation. It made things worse in terms of the number of people who are vulnerable, precarious and exploited. It's important to keep this context in mind when thinking about ‘forced’ and ‘precarious’, because this is the context within which contracts or agreements between employees and employers conventionally take place.
Let’s start with forced labour, the more familiar of our two concepts. It's conventionally defined in terms of work or service which is extracted from a person under a threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. This consensus definition is taken from the 1930 Forced Labour Protocol, which was negotiated under the auspices of the International Labour Organization. It's important to emphasise that this definition focuses on employees and employers. It narrows the conversation to thinking about the point of contract: what does an employee do and what does an employer do?
The problem with this kind of focus is that it pushes to the outside of the conversation the context within which the arrangements between the two take place. When people talk about voluntary employment relationships or people consenting to particular types of labour arrangements, it's important to keep in mind that ‘consent’ or the language of ‘voluntarily offered’ can conceal or cloak the larger conditions within which negotiations between prospective employers and employers take place. We need to look not simply at what employers do, but also at the larger context within which negotiations around wages and conditions take place. We need to think about the lack of viable alternatives, and how people are compelled by the need for food or the need to support their loved ones to work under conditions that they would not have accepted if they had had other options. So, when people talk in terms of forced labour we really need to think about the broader force of circumstances, and not simply about direct forms of coercion and violence that are exercised by individual employees.
In this situation we can begin to link forced labour to the larger context of precarious labour. Precarious labour linked to forced labour invites us to think about the limited opportunities and options within which employment negotiations and work take place. There's a whole bunch of things we might want to include in this context that could be indicators of either forced in precarious labour, but we really want to see both of these as being part of a whole rather than separate and distinct.
In the case of forced, we might want to think in terms of physical and sexual violence, intimidation, and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, forced overtime, etc. But, these types of characteristics that are commonly associated with force very comfortably and consistently overlap with the broader spectrum of experiences that we classify and define as precarious labour, which we might want to think of here in terms of irregular and uncertain work. It might also include things like a lack of job security, uncertainty regarding future employment, vulnerability to being dismissed without notice, poor and irregular wages, working conditions which have dangerous or adverse health effects, few legal rights and protections, and no effective redress for wrongs from their employer.
In thinking about this we need to emphasise that there's not one thing which is forced and another thing which is precarious. We are instead thinking about systems which structure the choices within which individual labour arrangements and contracts are created. A good example of this in the case of precarious labour is the ways in which individual employment relations are brokered by intermediaries between main employers and workers.
We have a good example of this here in South Africa, where the multinational beer brewing company Heineken employs a large number of workers to help in the production of beer, but it does not do so directly. Instead, Heineken outsources work to a labour broker or a labour intermediary. This creates distance, and allows Heineken, which is employing the workers to work in its factories, to assert that they are actually working for another company entirely. The result is that Heineken does not have any direct legal obligations to the people who work in its factories, sometimes for years. This triangular employment relationship is sometimes called a false employment relationship. Big multinationals employ workers who are formally employed by third parties in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for the direct welfare, employment, payment, etc. of the people producing their goods and services.
So there's a lot of different strategies legal and otherwise which are used to create terms of work that are highly unfavourable for employees. In some cases the theory may be that they're not employees, or it may be that they're defined and classified as independent contractors and are therefore understood to be entirely separate from the person who's paying them. In all of these cases the conditions are created to move more of the potential costs onto workers and to reduce any form of liability and responsibility to employers.
It's important to emphasise here as a final point that we should avoid the temptation to think in terms of workers being victims of systems. This is an important point, because workers are adept at defending and advancing their interests. They are capable of understanding what the issues are, and there are real dangers associated with reducing people in situations of vulnerability to the status of passive victims. People who need external intervention which provides help and assistance that they are incapable of achieving on their own. This kind of image is tied to the idea that the victims of exploitation need, first and foremost, to be rescued. This impulse to rescue is understandable, but it comes with the intendant risk of denying or diminishing the capacity of people in situations of work and labour to articulate and defend their own interest and to advance their own agendas.
Forced and precarious labour describes constraints. These constraints can be very serious and they can make it very difficult for workers to achieve their goals. But at the same time we shouldn't fall into the further trap of assuming that workers don't exercise agency, don't understand the issues, and are therefore subjects that require external intervention. There's a delicate line to be negotiated here. We need to understand the conditions around which work takes place, yet avoid the temptation to reduce people subject to those constraints and conditions to passive victims in need of external protection and support.
Deepen your learning by completing an exercise which asks you to evaluate the underlying causes of forced and precarious labour.
- Introducing the BTS Future of Work Roundtable by Joel Quirk and Cameron Thibos, openDemcracy (2019).
- Organising beyond silos: confronting common challenges amongst migrants and workers by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, openDemocracy (2019).
- Eight reasons why we shouldn’t use the term ‘modern slavery’, by Mike Dottridge, openDemocracy (2017).
- Harming While Trying to Help by SWAN Anti-Trafficking (2020).
- Missed opportunities and exclusion: sex workers reflect on two decades of anti-trafficking by the International Committee On The Rights Of Sex Workers In Europe, openDemocracy (2020).
- Everyday Abuse in the Global Economy, a special issue of The Anti-Trafficking Review edited by Joel Quirk, Caroline Robinson, and Cameron Thibos (2020).
- Causing harm while trying to help women in sex work by Alison Clancey, openDemocracy (2021).
- The political economy of anti-trafficking by Igor Bosc, openDemocracy (2018).
- Marketing mass hysteria: anti-trafficking awareness campaigns go rogue by Cristine Sardina, openDemocracy (2019).
- From Precarious Work to Decent Work by the International Labour Organisation (2012).
- Popular and Political Representations, a special collection from Beyond Trafficking and Slavery edited by Joel Quirk and Julia O'Connell Davidson (2016).
- Free to stitch, or starve: capitalism and unfreedom in the global garment industry by Alessandra Mezzadri, openDemocracy (2015).
- Harsh labour: bedrock of global capitalism by Benjamin Selwyn, openDemocracy (2015).
- Modern slavery and the gendered paradoxes of labour unfreedom by Alessandra Mezzadri, openDemocracy (2016).
- Why don’t we know if anti-trafficking initiatives work? by Benjamin Harkins, openDemocracy (2017).
- Indicators of Forced Labour by the International Labour Organization (2012).
- The politics of exception: the bipartisan appeal of human trafficking by Joel Quirk and Annie Bunting, openDemocracy (2014).
- Global supply chains: what does labour want? by Sharan Burrow, openDemocracy (2016).
- Capitalism’s unfree global workforce by Susan Ferguson and David McNally, openDemocracy (2015).
- The sadism of anti-trafficking and the erasure of racial slavery by Tryon P. Woods and P. Khalil Saucier, openDemocracy (2017).
The course was originally released on the edX.org platform in 2018, where it has now been archived. As of 2021 it is available on openDemocracy.
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