Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Week 8: Strategies for combating forced and precarious labour

What is to be done?

Joel Quirk
1 June 2018, 12.00am
Adriano Giulio Giovanelli. All rights reserved

Changing the world for the better has never been easy. There are numerous obstacles that need to be overcome before any kind of meaningful change can take place. These obstacles include resistance, inertia, and self-interest, along with further complications associated with leadership, strategy and organisation. It has also become clear, moreover, that even landmark campaigns routinely fall short of their ultimate goals, and therefore routinely end up with partial or qualified gains. Even high profile causes that have been widely celebrated as successful milestones, such as long-term challenges to legal slave systems or European colonial rule, have nonetheless been questioned in relation to both the racial afterlives of enslavement and the continuing legacies of empire.

Efforts to change the world are often described and analysed in terms of ‘repertoires of contention’, which is a concept developed by Charles Tilly. Whenever people seek to change the world they draw upon established tactics, strategies and performances – a repertoire – in order to advance political demands. Examples of repertoires of contention include boycotts, petitions, court challenges, meetings, strikes, occupations, marches, blockades, riots and rebellions. As these examples help to illustrate, repertoires of contention are frequently geared towards disruption, with the primary goal being to prevent or undermine the smooth and regular operations of the established political, economic and social order. These disruptions are frequently unpopular, and they can sometimes provoke violent reactions, but they nonetheless challenge business as usual.

Many of the most popular ‘solutions’ for combating modern slavery do not challenge business as usual. This includes corporate social responsibility, ethical consumption, technological innovation, and raising awareness. In an inversion of Tilly, they instead comprise repertoires of non-contention, since they are undemanding and politically non-threatening. If you search the internet for ‘things I can do to end slavery/trafficking’ you will quickly end up with many numerical lists of actions you can take. While not all lists are the same, they nonetheless tend to share some common features, with the most recommended ‘actions’ including 1) praying, 2) learning more, 3) informing friends and colleagues, 4) consuming ethically, 5) reporting suspicious cases, 6) writing to public officials, and 7) donating. None of these actions are especially disruptive or demanding. There is a fundamental mismatch between underlying system and popular ‘solution’.

Further complicating matters, governments have been able to leverage campaigns against human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ to support other agendas, such as ‘building a wall’ (including Trump’s fantasies about duct tape) or ‘stopping the boats’ in the Mediterranean. Official efforts to prevent movement across international borders are not motivated by humanitarian concerns regarding the plight of vulnerable migrants, but they have nonetheless been justified in anti-trafficking terms, providing an ‘humanitarian’ veneer to policies and practices which routinely end up hurting, rather than helping.

Forced and precarious labour are the product of systems which can only be effectively challenged via political disruption. Unjust laws governing migration need to be overturned. Global systems of production and exploitation need to be challenged. Corporations need to be held accountable. Criminal sanctions and social stigmas that leave sex workers vulnerable must be overturned. Rights, protections and recognition should support all workers and migrants, rather than attempting to target exceptional cases of individual abuse, deviant criminals, and ‘bad apple’ employers. Workers and migrants have been organising against exploitation and abuse for a very long time, so any conversation about different strategies should prioritise their expertise and experience.

The classroom

Part 1. Introducing week eight

Length: 11:05

View a transcript of Part 1

Welcome back to week eight of our course on precarious labour on the global economy. We're reaching the end of the course, so this week we want to take an opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

If you've been following along you'll have seen that we first considered global supply chains, then migrant workers, and then finally the politics and practice of sex work.

In this session we want to think more systematically about the question of solutions. What types of proposals, interventions, and approaches are most likely to challenge the patterns of labour exploitation which structure the world of work globally?

In the activities section of this course we've asked you to think about what types of solutions are likely to be effective, and then more recently we've paired the conversation about effectiveness with a follow-up conversation about political difficulty. We’ve asked what level of difficulty a particular solution is likely to generate or provoke.

In this session we want to pick up that thread and think about which solutions are most likely to be effective, most likely to be politically significant, and also which are most likely to be counterproductive or ineffective.

The first of the two videos is going to look at the question of what doesn't work, what types of interventions are likely to do more harm than good, and what types of interventions are unlikely to grapple with the underlying root causes of labour exploitation. That's our focus in this video. In the second video we're going to go on to think about what an alternative might look like.

When it comes to the question of what doesn't work, a really good starting point comes from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and their idea of collateral damage. Collateral damage is the idea that, however well-intentioned you might be, the practical effects of your intervention and the fact that you acted rather than did not act has ended up doing more harm than good. There are a number of examples of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery interventions that have ultimately left things worse off. One of the strongest examples is the popular strategy of ‘raid and rescue’. Such ‘operations’ often end up rescuing people that weren't keen to be rescued and then placing them in situations where the rehabilitation that is provided and the sanctuary that is offered is ultimately more toxic and difficult and unproductive than the circumstances in which they were to begin with. So in this context you can hear people talk about running from their rescuers – the rescue is not welcome and in a lot of cases counterproductive.

We also have examples of laws that end up punishing rather than helping. Two examples have come through in the last year from India and the United States, where laws against trafficking have been widely celebrated. In the case of the US, you have legislation that prevents the online advertising of sex work. This has had all kinds of flow-on effects in terms of pushing commercial sex work into less open, more hazardous, and more complicated spaces. The law was celebrated. Donald Trump is very keen on it, the Republican Party is very keen on it, even the Democrats are very keen on it. Yet when you look at the practical effects it's likely to have, there's not really much cause for celebration.

A similar type of story applies in India. Now, India has some of the most extensive labour legislation in the world. It has a robust union movement and other forms of collective organising, and while collective organising doesn't always succeed there's still a rich and long history of struggle for better wages and conditions within the Indian subcontinent. More recently, however, this has been overshadowed by the introduction of anti-trafficking legislation that embraces a very different path, a different understanding of the problem, and a different type of remedy – one which prioritises prosecution, supports raid and rescue, and complicates access to rights and protections. Laws are often presented as the next big thing that will have a transformative impact, but in a lot of cases laws end up creating collateral damage. They look like they should be doing one thing but the actual effects are something else entirely.

Another example is investment in public messaging that strongly emphasises the sensational. In a lot of cases, images, statistics, and first-person narratives of extreme suffering and violence have been used to draw attention to various problems and practices. Now there's a calculation being made here that sensationalism, sexualisation, and simplification are worth the price of drawing in an audience. Sensational content is understood to attract energy and investment, and activists and governments have calculated that it's a price worth paying.

The problem with this type of sensationalism is that much of what people think they know about underlying problems is unfounded, inaccurate, and incomplete. As a consequence we are now in a situation where people think they know a great deal about human trafficking and modern slavery, but in a lot of cases their information is simplified, sensational and misleading that they end up creating problems rather than solutions. So there are lots of occasions where the messaging, however well-intentioned, ends up leaving people confused and uninformed. As a consequence we don't have an evidence base that is strong enough to properly guide interventions. There's a lot of light and there's a lot of sound, but the foundation isn't what it should be.

We also have examples of solutions that don't necessarily have strong adverse effects, but at the same time we don’t expect much of them either. A classic example of this is corporate social responsibility and supply chain transparency legislation. These are popular in part because they're undemanding and the non-threatening. Much the same applies to issues associated with ethical consumption. Purchasing and consuming your values is widely proposed as an effective solution for combating labour exploitation, but in a lot of cases all it does is create a parallel economic structure which exists alongside normal patterns of exploitation, production, privilege and so on.

So some of the most popular solutions are unlikely to have an effect, and in some kind of paradoxical way that's ultimately why they're popular. Significant interventions challenge systems, challenge borders, and challenge privileges, and any type of solution which poses such a challenge is unlikely to command the type of broad, near-universal support that something like corporate social responsibility of ethical consumption is likely to command. In crucial to realise that some solutions are popular because they're ineffective rather than they because they are effective.

We've looked in this session at what hurts and at what is unlikely to help very much. In the session that follows we're going to think systematically about what some of the alternatives might look like.

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Part 2. Challenging the root causes of forced and precarious labour

Length: 11:39

View a transcript of Part 2

So welcome back to week eight of our course on forced and precarious labour in the global economy. This second video focuses on the solutions and strategies which might effectively challenge the patterns of labour exploitation that structure so much of how goods are produced and consumed in the world in which we live.

In the previous video we looked at the question of what doesn't work, what types of solutions end up doing more harm than good, and which solutions are popular because they're unthreatening and uncontroversial. In this session, we want to map out some of the ways in which we might think about alternatives that are more likely to be effective in challenging systems of labour exploitation.

Before we go on to discuss what some of those solutions and strategies might be, it's crucial to emphasise that there's a real danger involved in assuming from the outside what workers and migrants want and, as a consequence, imposing solutions upon peoples who weren't necessarily consulted or engaged. The dangers associated with these types of external impositions are often rooted in paternalism, where there are saviours from the outside, there are supplicants in need of rescue, and the task of intervention is to provide support for people who are unable, or in some cases even unwilling, to help themselves.

It's really important to resist that type of formula. We need to be cautious when thinking about what the alternative might be, because in a lot of cases solutions aren’t so much about deciding what people want. They’re about providing additional options, rights, and protections so that workers and migrants can articulate, defend and organise their own interests and speak about their own experiences.

Real caution needs to be applied here. The medical profession runs under the injunction to do no harm. Doing no harm means only acting in a context where you feel that you will end up being beneficial rather than counterproductive. A lot of the worst effects that are associated with anti-trafficking and anti-slavery interventions come from people who are well-intentioned, but whose motivations are based upon the assumption that they know what's best. When it comes to solutions, the caution is that you don't decide how things get fixed. You instead think about ways for people to defend and articulate and apply their own interests and experiences.

It's here that we need to think about a longer history, one which is often absent from discussions of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery – that of collective organising, workers' rights and unionisation. Workers as individuals are often isolated and forced to accept terms and conditions that they don't otherwise like. Due to power imbalances, they are obliged to accept these terms and conditions out of necessity, out of a lack of viable alternatives, and so on.

So when it comes to thinking about solutions, there's a bundle of issues around providing additional rights and protections for people who are working. Some of these involve creating capacities for collective bargaining; creating legal rights to form unions and not criminalising unions; creating conditions where workers can effectively seek back pay when they're forced to work more than they otherwise should; and creating channels for people to raise concerns about hazardous and dangerous conditions at work. These solutions are ultimately about providing rights and protections, and about creating the conditions where people can raise grievances without fear of retribution. The result is that they can more effectively articulate and defend their own interests around working conditions, harm and hazard, pay, length of contract, and so on and so forth.

Much the same applies when it comes to questions of migration. In a lot of cases, the problems revolve around how borders and border protection create patterns of vulnerability. These leave people exposed to capricious employers and forced to take wages far below what locals with the rights and prerogatives of citizenship would accept. The solutions must confront these issues as well. That means changing the design of labour and changing the design of migration so rights can be defended and workers can effectively organise in ways that articulate their interests.

Much the same applies in relation to the more specific issue of sex work. In a lot of cases, it's the criminal sanctions and stigma that are associated with commercial sexual activities that create some of the most significant impediments to sex workers articulating and defending their rights to better conditions, better pay, less vulnerability and so on.

So it's the barriers to organising. It's the barriers against people coming together in order to create a better deal in terms of how, when, and on what terms they work. Now, it's crucial to emphasise here that these types of approaches are unlikely to create radical transformation and a quick solution. We need to think in terms of a complex set of struggles which takes place in many different parts of the world, in many different industries, and none of these struggles are likely to be concluded quickly or resolved decisively. There will instead be lots of little gains and sometimes little losses around the terms and conditions under which people work.

There's a lot of rhetoric associated with ending slavery in our lifetime and ending slavery by 2030. These things are extremely unhelpful because they misdiagnose and misunderstand the nature of the struggle. The larger issues that sit behind labour rights – patterns of privilege and inequality, the ways in which borders create vulnerability, the nature of unemployment and underemployment and precarious work – all take place on a canvas that is global. There are also solutions that are proposed on a global scale, things like basic income or reparations for historical injustice, and these larger ideas are associated with the recognition that the way in which our world is currently organised is fundamentally unjust. There's heavy concentration of privilege, often based around ideas of race, ideas of gender, which mean the particular groups within society and between societies occupy highly privileged positions, and those privileges confer benefits that do not extend to people with the wrong passport, the wrong skin colour, or the wrong gender.

As a consequence, challenging forced and precarious labour ultimately means that we have to grapple and engage with the larger structures of inequality and privilege and poverty which sit behind them. Even global supply chains, which is the most significant pattern of labour exploitation that we currently face, is ultimately a symptom of this larger set of problems and stems from how the world is organised and who gets what, when, and how.

Any discussion of solutions which doesn't foreground this underlying reality is unlikely to create a foundation for an effective challenge. Now at this point, it should be evident that this is not a cause that we can or should agree upon. When we asked you to think about what solutions were effective, we then paired that with the discussion of what solutions were likely to be politically difficult. The types of things that have been introduced in this course, the things we've discussed, aren't going to be things that command consensus. They're not even necessarily things that are going to command majority support. That's partly because the systems that we face create benefits, and in order to challenge them you have to challenge the people who derive benefit from them.

A good sign that something is likely to be effective is the opposition that it generates from people in positions of power. If people in positions of power are comfortable or supportive of a particular course of action, it's generally a good sign that they've calculated that it's unlikely to challenge the privileges that they currently enjoy. So when it comes to solutions, widespread support is generally a sign that it is unlikely to have the bite that it ultimately needs.

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Essential readings

Further information

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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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