Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

What is exploitation anyway?

Exploitation remains undefined in international law, and this has consequences for the exploited people that policymakers seek to protect.

Neil Howard
15 November 2020
Artwork by Carys Boughton.
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All rights reserved.

The concept of exploitation sits at the heart of efforts to define and deliver decent work. It is foundational to what institutions like the International Labour Organization do. And it occupies a central position within the global legal architecture around extreme forms of abuse like ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’ and ‘modern slavery’. Nearly all of the campaigns, interventions, laws, and policies which have been introduced to address these crimes in recent decades have exploitation at their core.

Yet exploitation is nowhere defined in international law. Even the Palermo Protocol, which establishes the internationally agreed upon definition of trafficking, deliberately avoids offering anything concrete. Some say this doesn’t matter, believing that ‘we’ll always know it when we see it’. Others regard this omission as positive. If we leave the content of exploitation open, they say, then legislators and activists can fill it with ever more examples of ‘unacceptable’ work – thereby advancing the cause of improving working conditions for us all.

These arguments have some merit. But a wealth of contemporary research and years of frontline engagement with vulnerable workers in the Global North and South suggest that this lack of definitional clarity contributes to all kinds of problems.

The key sticking point here is the issue of power. Simply put, not everybody is permitted to help define exploitation or to nominate examples of it. Seats at the table are limited and exclusive, so the activities that get defined as exploitative are usually the ones that people in power find offensive. Likewise, what is understood as a cause of exploitation and what is legitimated as a remedy both tend to be that which makes sense to and for the powerful.

What gets understood as a cause of exploitation and what is legitimated as a remedy both tend to be that which makes sense to and for the powerful.

This is troubling because the powerful and their perspectives are not representative of the whole. Indeed, they tend to be people at the top of vectors of inequality, such as race, class, gender, and generation, with perspectives that are seriously circumscribed by their privilege and the ideologies that underpin it.

This translates into an approach to exploitation that is de-politicised, individualised, racialised, adult-centric, and patriarchal. The prevailing causal narrative, for example, tends to view exploitation as something that only morally corrupt individuals ‘do’ – and to unsuspecting innocents. Often this binary breaks down along crudely racialised and gendered lines, with black or brown male perpetrators on one side and innocent women and children on the other.

Liberal capitalist tropes also heavily inflect this narrative, in the sense that the exploited are said to be victims of largely interpersonal coercion or deception, with an ahistorical and abstract understanding of poverty conceded as the immovable force majeure in the background.

A further issue here is the way in which certain categories of work (such as sex work) are framed as essentially exploitative, with clear lines drawn between what is ‘acceptable’ to human dignity and that which is said to be alien to it. The problem is that, once again, those who draw these lines do so according to culturally and class-specific moral frameworks. And these are far from universally shared.

These definitional deficiencies can have damaging consequences, as many of the scholars and activists writing on this website have demonstrated. For the purposes of this introduction, there are three points worth highlighting.

The first is that by singling out only certain phenomena as exploitative and in need of eradication, we end up excluding other, similarly troubling phenomena from our analysis and interest. Take, for example, modern abolitionists’ simmering outrage over forced child marriage in the Global South and contrast it with their much more muted reaction to the plight of migrants (including children) stuck in European and North American detention facilities. How can this difference be justified? And what is lost in the process?

Second, when entire categories of work are constructed as exploitative by default, livelihood strategies can be problematised that may not be problematic for the people living within them. Even worse, when these livelihood strategies are consequently targeted for abolition, the people whose lives depend on them almost always suffer. Sex work and child work are the paradigmatic examples here. Policymakers and civil society actors on all continents have attempted to ‘save’ sex workers and child workers by banning them from doing the work that they rely on to live. In doing so they only cause them ever greater misery. Is this really in the interests of the exploited?

Third, by concentrating on individual ‘bad egg’ perpetrators or on sectors seen as inherently exploitative, the prevailing modern abolitionist approach to exploitation has the effect of naturalising the underlying causal conditions of all problematic labour relations. It deflects attention away from the core processes and structures that facilitate violence and abuse, including the private property regimes that deny people the means of subsistence and the socio-legal systems that dehumanise some humans and not others.

So what is to be done? The conversation that Beyond Trafficking and Slavery aims to initiate with this feature intends to offer answers to this question. Over the next four weeks, we will profile the perspectives of political theorists, philosophers, sociologists, economists, and representatives of ‘the exploited’. Our goal is to push the boundaries of how we think about exploitation, and to tease out the implications of doing so differently. Fundamentally, the feature will point in the direction of more radical efforts – to understand the structurality of exploitation, exclusion, and the vulnerability entailed in both, and to support workers in accessing and operationalising greater collective power in the world of the market. Enjoy.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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