Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The political economy of anti-trafficking

Politicians are far more likely to back anti-trafficking measures that don’t disrupt prevailing power balances at home. That’s a major reason why so many interventions fail. 

Igor Bosc
22 August 2018

Tobias Leeger/Flickr. CC (by-nd)

The International Labour Organisation’s Work in Freedom Programme (WIF)* seeks to reduce the vulnerability of migrant women to forced labour. It is a five-year programme operating in five countries in South Asia and the Middle East, and spans several, women-heavy sectors such as domestic and garment work. WIF is part of the global effort to achieve Target 8.7 of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which focuses on forced labour and human trafficking, and falls within the larger aim of SDG 8 to “promote … decent work for all”.

The WIF programme has sought to review, test, and document a variety of strategies and policies for their efficacy in areas with high migration outflows or inflows, and in the recruitment pathways linking both. The programme has furthermore engaged interested policy makers and stakeholders in reviewing different policy solutions that could reduce vulnerability to forced labour. These include but are not limited to policies, laws, and administrative practices around anti-trafficking, migration, skills development, recruitment, and labour.

So far, we have found that policy makers show greater interest in tackling human trafficking and forced labour when doing so does not disrupt power relationships in which they have a direct stake. For example, policy makers in countries or cities of destination tend to support information campaigns designed to educate migrant workers about risks. This is especially true when the campaigns target prospective migrants before they leave their countries of origin. They have also supported prosecution efforts targeting labour recruitment intermediaries in countries or districts of origin.

Policy makers show greater interest in tackling human trafficking and forced labour when doing so does not disrupt power relationships in which they have a direct stake.

However, policy makers proved more circumspect when it came to implementing labour laws in countries of destination, even where systemic labour abuses were well documented. Their resistance became more pronounced when implementation would affect the balance of power between employer and migrant worker, or contractor and migrant worker (e.g. support to freedom of association or collective bargaining, embodied in ILO Conventions Nos. 87 and 98, respectively).  

Likewise, policy makers in countries, states, or districts of origin regularly demonstrated concern for the abusive conditions faced by migrant workers in the countries of destination. When it came to addressing the reasons why migrants were leaving their homes, or regulating large-scale, formalised migrant facilitators, they were less enthusiastic.

The overall result of this political economy of migration and anti-trafficking policy-making is that forced labour, however well documented, tends to be systemically ignored. Registered recruiters and intermediaries sometimes find themselves targeted by anti-trafficking interventions. It is far more likely, however, that informal labour recruitment intermediaries – often thought of as ‘unscrupulous middlemen’ – are on the sharp end of anti-trafficking policy. Finally, significant time and resources are spent on educational campaigns for migrant workers.

Information deficits and the need for labour governance

In an environment of scarcity in quality employment, both employers and labourers tend to rely on labour intermediaries (e.g. contractors) to meet their needs. Pathways to jobs in domestic, garment, and other low-income sectors are thus not only shaped by the rules and practices governing migrant mobility, but are also joined together by a variety of agents and contractors.

Forced labour, however well documented, tends to be systemically ignored.

The fluidity and segmentation of labour supply chains is such that none of the key stakeholders – e.g. labourers, labour recruiters, regulators, and employers – can guarantee on their own a fair migration outcome for any worker. If working conditions are poor, each stakeholder in the recruitment process has a vested interest not to volunteer information that could make the migrant worker change her mind. The more intermediaries that are involved in the recruitment process, the more likely it is that they will omit information if not outright misinform migrants about working conditions. This leads many workers to claim they were deceived during the recruitment process, yet each individual link in the chain is often able to plausibly deny this charge.

Domestic, garment, and textile work employs increasing numbers of women.1 While employment in these sectors may improve the livelihoods of some of those involved, the intensity of the labour, the long hours, and the insufficient pay still make achieving a decent standard of living extremely difficult. 2, 3, 4

These challenges can be at least partly addressed through better labour governance based on rights-based approaches and international labour standards.5 A policy paper prepared in February 2017 by the ILO concluded that:

“while some anti-trafficking laws and policies can be useful, they tend to focus on prosecution of recruiters, protection of victims and information for migrants. However, they rarely account for the power dynamics behind labour abuses, and as a result tend to avoid the economic and labour laws, policies and practices that generate vulnerability to forced labour”.5

Another paper documenting lessons learned in the programme concluded that:

“Laws, polices and administrative practices to prevent human trafficking tend to prioritize educating migrants and holding recruiters accountable while glossing over working and living conditions. Policy guidance on improving working conditions is more important than educating workers about risks they often can’t mitigate or holding labour recruiters accountable for practices that do not necessarily depend on them. It is important to prioritize addressing labour and working conditions in destinations rather than over-emphasizing prevention through pre-employment interventions”.6

Meanwhile common anti-trafficking policies used by South Asian governments – such as migration bans for women or interception-focused, anti-trafficking committees in areas of origin – undermine the human rights of migrants and are ineffective.7, 8


There are no easy and simple fixes for human trafficking and forced labour. To address forced labour, rights-based laws, policies, and practices anchored in and fully responsive to local political economies are necessary. Only then can incremental and well-planned interventions expand decent work options. This is always challenging. Yet, livelihood, labour, and mobility rights can only effectively address forced labour when the policies implementing them disrupt prevailing power dynamics and improve working conditions, income levels, rest time, and above all the dignity of workers and their families.5, 9

* Work in Freedom is an integrated development cooperation programme aiming to reduce vulnerability to trafficking and forced labour of women migrating to garment and domestic work. The programme is funded by UK Aid. The view reflected in this article do not reflect the views of UK Government.


#footnotes li {margin-bottom:10px;}
  1. NSSO (2012): “National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 68th Round of Employment and Unemployment Survey (2011-12),” New Delhi: Government Press. ↩︎
  2. Truskinovsky, Yulya, Janet Rubin & Drusilla Brown (2014): "Sexual Harassment in Garment Factories: Firm Structure, Organizational Culture and Incentive Systems." Geneva: International Labour Organisation and International Financial Corporation.   ↩︎
  3. Rustagi, Preet, Balwant Singh Mehta, & Deeksha Tayal (2017): “Persisting servitude and gradual shifts toward recognition and dignity of labour: A study of employers of domestic workers in two metropolitan cities of Delhi and Mumbai,” New Delhi: ILO. ↩︎
  4. Mezzadri, Alessandra and Ravi Srivastava (2015): "Labour regimes in the Indian garment sector: capital-labour relations, social reproduction and labour standards in the National Capital Region", London: Centre for Development Policy and Research. ↩︎
  5. International Labour Organisation (2017, February): "Policy Brief on Anti Trafficking Policies, Laws and Practices," New Delhi: ILO. ↩︎
  6. International Labour Organisation (2017, October): "Lessons Learned by the Work in Freedom Programme," New Delhi: ILO. ↩︎
  7. Shrestha, Jebli and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson (2015): No Easy Exit: Migration Bans Affecting Women from Nepal, Geneva: International Labour Organisation, Work in Freedom Programme. ↩︎
  8. Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) (2007): Collateral Damage: the impact of human trafficking measures on human rights around the world, Thailand: GAATW Publications. ↩︎
  9. International Labour Organisation (1930), Forced Labour Convention No. 29, Art. 2(f). ↩︎
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