The battle against exploitative labour should be part of a moral and political struggle over the kind of society we want to live in.
By Neil Howard
It is commonly asserted that forced labour, along with trafficking and slavery, represents ‘the underside of globalisation’. In this understanding, abstract economic forces structure the globe, and their negative side effects include an increase both in the poverty that breeds vulnerability and in the predatory criminal practices that thrive on it.
Politicians and activists thus routinely call for governments to ‘get tough’ on criminals in order to root out those who exploit the weak. The recent high-profile release of the Walk Free Foundation’s, celebratory-endorsed Global Slavery Index is paradigmatic in this regard. The Index is a naming-and-shaming exercise designed to encourage governments to ‘assess’ and ‘improve’ their response to modern slavery.
The problem with this approach is that it totally fails to address the political-economic underpinnings of all exploitative labour. Indeed, it treats exploitative labour – whether in the form of trafficking, slavery or simple ‘forced labour’ – entirely a-politically and as a problem of criminality that can be overcome by developing sufficient governmental will to effectively fund competent police forces.
This can be seen even in the workings of the UN body that fights hardest to protect the world’s workers – the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO uses ‘forced labour’ as a blanket term that encompasses trafficking and slavery and can be boiled down to all work that is coerced out of a worker and for which he/she has not offered him/herself voluntarily.
Yet in setting the boundaries for what does or does not constitute a coercive breach of this voluntary self-offering, the ILO states that, while both employers and governments can be guilty, neither are “accountable for all external constraints or indirect coercion existing in practice: for example, the need to work in order to earn one’s living” [emphasis added].
It is worth pausing for a moment to take stock of what this means. It means that the generalised ‘need to earn one’s living’ is established somehow as a natural state of affairs, absent of any ‘act of the authorities’. This in turn means that coercion can only exist legally as an individualised phenomenon of which only an individual criminal employer or a rogue state can be guilty.
The trouble with this position is that it narrates out of the equation the very political, structural fact that the ‘need to earn one’s living’, along with the conditions in which one does so, is itself always and everywhere the result of acts of the authorities. As the legal scholar, Robert Steinfeld, explains:
“Economic compulsion is an artefact of law, not of nature. [Although] market forces are supposed…to operate impersonally and indirectly…to exert pressure only in the way that nature exerts pressure (if you do not work you starve)…economic coercion always has its source in a set of legal rights, privileges, and powers that place one person in a position to force another person to choose between labour and some more disagreeable alternative.”
Robert Lee Hale made this same point starkly when arguing on behalf of the American poor in 1923:
“[The worker] must eat. Yet while there is no law against eating in the abstract, there is a law which forbids him to eat any of the food which actually exists in the community – and that is the law of private property… Unless the non-owner [of property] can produce his own food, the law compels him to starve if he has not wages, and compels him to go without wages unless he obeys the behests of some employer.”
To place this observation in contemporary terms, what it implies is that when a poor African woman faces the choice between starvation or exploitative labour, her ‘choice’ to opt for exploitative labour represents no real choice at all. Rather, it is the non-choice of a lesser evil that has been forced upon her by prevailing national and international legal regimes which structurally condition her vulnerability. They do this by legally sanctioning her lack of entitlement to land, labour rights, financial support, childcare, food or other necessary social protection.
Exploitative labour of this kind is therefore the indirect political responsibility of clearly identifiable actors making real-world decisions.
Seen in this way, the fight against forced labour should not be a celebrity battle against abstract economic forces or the bogeymen criminals who are able to capitalise on them. It must be a political, moral and practical struggle over the kinds of societies we wish to live in, over which kinds of coercive pressures we consider legitimate and illegitimate in labour relations, and thus over which kinds of social protections are provided.
The questions we must ask, therefore, are fundamental. Do we wish to live in a world where some are left unprotected against the brute force of economic compulsion? Or do we want a world where wealth is sufficiently well distributed for people to be free from taking the least bad jobs available? Do we want a world where 300 people control as much of the world’s wealth as 3 billion? Where individual criminals are targeted, while those who create the conditions for poverty go free? Or would we like a fairer political-economic future that tackles the political root cause of exploitation?
For too long, these questions have remained unasked, and where they have been, they have been derided as ‘radical’ or ‘idealistic’. But it is time for that to change. Because forced labour, like all labour exploitation, is fundamentally a political phenomenon.