Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Universal basic income: a way through the storm?

Vast numbers of people around the world don’t have sufficient cash to ride out life’s problems. Could a basic income see them through?

Neil Howard
16 September 2019, 7.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Mainstream thinking on human trafficking and modern slavery te­­nds to assume that people who find themselves in situations of exploitation do so primarily because ‘bad guy’ perpetrators coerce them. And while this does happen, research from around the world overwhelmingly demonstrates that individualised coercion is not the major pathway by which people end up in bad work.

Exploited workers – including those labelled by authorities as ‘victims of trafficking’ or as ‘modern slaves’ – typically consent to the work that they do, however abusive or unpleasant, because it represents the best or only option they have of making the money they need. This has been shown in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America.

Which begs the question: if we really want to end ‘modern slavery’, and indeed if we’re serious about protecting people from all forms of exploitation (which the Sustainable Development Goals suggest that at least our politicians claim to be), then why not simply ensure that everyone always has a minimum amount of money in their pocket such that they can say no to bad work?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. Social protection scholars have long made the case that we should ‘just give money to the poor’ if we want to help them, and that doing so is cheaper, more effective and more humane than traditional policies which are costly, complicated and often regressively conditional.

Basic income advocates say the same things. A basic income is defined as a regular cash payment delivered unconditionally and individually to all people. Think of it as a small salary just for being human; it won’t make you rich but it should keep you alive in a world where you need money to survive. Because of this, thinkers since at least Thomas Paine have advocated for it as a means of softening the edges of capitalist society. They’ve argued that basic income would be simpler to administer, more efficient, and considerably more benign than traditional welfare policies, which often overlook those most in need and shame those who receive.

Four years ago, world leaders committed to eradicating ‘indecent’ and ‘unfree’ work by 2030 at the latest, and recent research shows them investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year to do so. Yet evidence also suggests that many of these efforts are failing, while some even make life worse for the very people they’re supposed to protect. We thus have a duty to ask ourselves what else can be done.

It is in order to do this that Beyond Trafficking and Slavery has brought together a series of experts, scholars and activists to reflect on the question: What role could basic income play in the fight against unfree labour? Our respondents include prominent basic income theorists such as Kathi Weeks, Guy Standing and Karl Widerquist, all of whom believe that basic income could be a pillar of a future, freer world, in part because it offers people the ‘power to say no’ as well as ‘yes’ in the labour market. Alongside them we have three respected sceptics – Ana Dinerstein, Jurgen de Wispelaere and Simon Birnbaum – all of whom caution against exaggerating basic income’s emancipatory potential, not least because as a policy it is so compatible with capitalism.

In addition to these scholars Renana Jhabvala, Chairperson of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the world’s largest union of informal sector women workers, is also sitting at the table. In 2013, SEWA ran one of the biggest and most successful basic income pilots in history, and what they found was remarkable (pdf). First, that basic income fostered economic productivity among recipient villages, increasing asset bases and encouraging saving. Second, that it induced improvements in child nutrition, school attendance, school performance, health, sanitation and housing. And third – most significantly – that it led to a reduction in debt bondage, as more and more families had the money necessary to clear their loans and survive economic shocks.

We’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions from the debate, which runs throughout this week to coincide with World Basic Income Week. We will then continue to release further content on basic income until UK Anti-Slavery Day on 18 October. This will include video interviews with women who participated in basic income trials in India and in Canada, and who reflect powerfully with us on what basic income meant for their lives and their freedom. Likewise, we will speak to a representative of the world’s largest ongoing basic income trial in Kenya about what that project’s preliminary findings are saying.

Philippe Van Parijs, arguably the world’s leading basic income thinker, will explain why he believes a basic income could lead us towards a saner society and a healthier economy. Other commentators will share their views on what basic income could mean for labour relations, gender relations, and even the global climate crisis.

Finally, we will take an in-depth look at basic income in India, the country where basic income has moved from the margins of utopianism to mainstream political platform. What can be learnt from India for the rest of the world?


This debate was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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