Intervention – Towards a Multi-dimensional Concept of Forced Labour

Siobhan McGrathby Siobhan McGrath, Lancaster University

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recently updated its estimate of the number of people worldwide in forced labour. The new estimate is dramatically higher than the previous one. (This does not necessarily represent a rise in the number of those experiencing forced labour, as the previous one was an ‘estimated minimum’.) One interesting aspect of this is that in 2005, there were an estimated minimum of 360,000 persons in forced labour in ‘industrialized countries’ but the 2012 estimate for ‘developed economies and the European Union’ is 1,500,000 – a notable increase. Indeed, there has recently been ample coverage of cases occurring within the Global North which involve accusations of forced labour and trafficking.

One recent case involving a Wal-Mart seafood supplier encapsulates the political economy of forced labour. The Wal-Mart model of keeping prices low through forcing cost pressures onto suppliers is implicated in this case, because these pressures are often largely passed onto workers and their communities (for example, through intensification of work and/or reductions in compensation). But this is made possible by the US immigration regime which makes migrant workers vulnerable to these lowered standards through granting them (only) guestworker status: guestworker visas typically tie workers to one employer, giving employers a source of power over these workers. By highlighting how this labour is ‘forced’ and therefore unacceptable, advocates speaking out on behalf of these workers are granted some legitimacy. In this case increasing awareness of forced labour and trafficking, along with new legislative tools, will likely be of benefit to migrant workers facing extreme exploitation. However, we need to be mindful of the risks involved in framing these issues in the language of forced labour and trafficking.

In the UK there was no law against forced labour – only trafficking – until 2009. Before the law against forced labour was passed it was, in a sense, only ‘immigrants’ who could be imagined as subject to extreme exploitation and unfreedom. And it seems logical that migrants, particularly those who are not able to obtain authorisation to work, would be most vulnerable to forced labour. Yet in public discourse trafficking inevitably gets muddled up with smuggling and sex work. Anti-immigrant sentiments – among members of Parliament and members of the public – did not seem to be challenged by efforts against trafficking in the UK. Calls to combat trafficking can all too easily be used to justify restrictive policies and practices which actually harm sex workers and migrants. (Reported arrests of sex workers in advance of the 2012 Olympics are a case in point.) So it was a step forward when a law against forced labour came into effect in 2010.

Recent sentences imposed on members of the Conors family for perpetrating forced labour offences are therefore historic (see here, here and here). The alleged victims in this case were apparently vulnerable – but the basis of this vulnerability was not the familiar story of ‘foreigners’ or women ‘lured’ into prostitution. They were men who had experienced homelessness and/or substance abuse. The trouble is the identity of the alleged perpetrators. The Conors are Irish Travellers.

The scene of the alleged crime is the Greenacres caravan site near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. The arrests occurred in September 2011 as the battle over the Dale Farm Traveller site raged, resulting in a mass eviction in October. Many of the articles about the sentences received by the Conors highlight the identity of the perpetrators – meaning that the coverage will almost certainly fuel anti-Traveller prejudice. (The fact that in this case it is Travellers who have been accused might seem an unfortunate coincidence, but another recent story links Travellers to forced labour and trafficking.) The important questions which might be raised by the case – for example, about socio-economic inequality, weakened labour regulation, inadequate social safety nets – are partially deflected by focussing on the character of those who committed the crime (and this further serves to confirm stereotypes about Travellers).

The point is that questions over what exactly constitutes forced labour (or unfree labour, or trafficking) and how to address it are always entwined with broader politics. Just consider the rankings assigned to countries for their efforts to fight trafficking published in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The report has been subject to extensive criticism over the fact that politics seem to determine a country’s ranking as much as any reasonable assessment of anti-trafficking policies and programmes. These politics have historical precedents. Suzanne Miers provides numerous examples of how the fight against slavery was used and abused to promote other political goals, aptly referring to these dynamics as the ‘anti-slavery game’.

Those of us who wish to challenge some of the worst abuses against workers will have to consider wider politics, whether the politics of race and caste, the politics of borders and migration, the politics of sex and gender – the list could go on. We need to be cognizant of how these issues intersect, including the possibility that concerns over labour exploitation and abuse may be hijacked in the service of political agendas which are anything but emancipatory. My hope is that a multi-dimensional approach to concepts such as forced labour (or ‘slave’ labour) can help us place cases of extreme labour exploitation within these contexts, rooting our efforts to contest forced labour within wider struggles.

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Siobhan McGrath is a lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre. Her doctoral research at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Development Policy and Management analysed the labour dynamics of production networks in two cases of ‘slave labour’ in Brazil, and she continues to be interested in forced labour (and related concepts such as unfree labour and human trafficking), degrading conditions of employment, precarious work, and unregulated work characterised by workplace violations. Siobhan’s work has been published in Geoforum, Work, Employment and Society, Urban Geography, and International Labour Review. You can read Siobhan’s forthcoming Antipode paper, ‘Many chains to break: The multi-dimensional concept of slave labour in Brazil’, here.