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A Labor Paradigm for Human Trafficking?

I recently published an article  in which I call for a paradigm shift from a human rights to a labor paradigm to human trafficking. In the article I argue that current efforts to combat trafficking, that view trafficking predominantly as a crime or as a human rights violation, end up helping an alarmingly small number of individuals out of the multitudes currently understood as falling under the category of trafficked persons, and even in these few cases, the assistance provided is of questionable value. I therefore suggest that a labor approach to trafficking is required to deal with the phenomenon’s underlying causes. I argue that because individual and collective labor and employment rights emerged in the attempt to bring about structural changes to labor markets that would strengthen workers’ bargaining positions and, eventually, lead to the redistribution of wealth between capital and labor, they are better suited than the traditional human rights tools for addressing the institutional aspects of the labor market exploitation on which trafficking is structured.

In the article I explore five factors that have led to the absence of a labor orientation in anti-trafficking efforts. One such factor, I propose, is that the traditional focus on sex trafficking makes the introduction of a labor discourse highly controversial because of deeply rooted disagreement over the nature of prostitution and its regulation as work. Another factor is the overall decline of the labor movement and its recent attempt to revive its legitimacy and currency by adopting human rights–like absolute and universal proclamations, akin to the human rights–based approach to trafficking. These trends have meant that the movement’s relevant bodies, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and trade unions, have not introduced or pushed for a Labor Paradigm for Human Trafficking labor-based framework in the global anti-trafficking campaign. This last factor is, hopefully, about to change.

The 2012 International Labor Conference (ILC) adopted conclusions requesting that the ILO conduct a “detailed analysis … to identify gaps in existing coverage of ILO standards with a view to determining whether there is a need for standard setting to: (i) complement the ILO’s forced labour Conventions to address prevention and victim protection, including compensation; and (ii) address human trafficking for labour exploitation.”

These conclusions provided the impetus for the Office’s development of a background report, and for the convention of a meeting of experts that took place in February 2013. One outcome of the meeting of experts was a decision to place a possible new forced labor instrument on the ILC agenda for 2014.

This is indeed an exciting development. The new instrument, if adopted, will hopefully be able to offer a more effective framework to combat trafficking – one that  seeks not only to assist victims of trafficking after they are removed from the exploitative environment but also to transform the structure of labor markets that are particularly susceptible to trafficking. Such an instrument has the potential to reach significantly more individuals vulnerable to trafficking by providing them with legal mechanisms for avoiding and resisting exploitation, and by shifting the focus away from individual harms to the power disparities between victims and traffickers and the economic and social conditions that make individuals vulnerable to trafficking.  The ILO will most likely turn to utilizing instruments of change such as strategies of collective action and bargaining, protective employment legislation, and contextual standard setting in labor sectors susceptible to trafficking.

It will be interesting to see whether the ILO stirs away from merely adopting the existing anti-trafficking framework as it appears in the Palermo Protocol and the TVPA and succeeds in drafting and adopting an instrument that develops a labor paradigm. This is not an easy task. There are an array of economic interests pushing against the adoption of a labor framework. On the one hand, national protectionist economic interests work to curb migration in order to protect local workers in certain sectors from competition. To this end, various anti-immigration policies are promoted that exacerbate migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking. On the other hand, there are rent-seeking interests that benefit from flexible, deregulated labor markets. Such interests may be served by worker migration, but need labor to remain informal, thereby reducing the cost of labor and weakening workers’ protections and bargaining power while increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. These two sets of economic interests stack up against adopting a labor paradigm to trafficking. Moreover, even if this new instrument is adopted, and it succeeds in offering an alternative paradigm, the ILO’s relative marginality in the international arena, and the low rate of adoption of ILO Conventions may still suggest that much more work is required by stakeholders “on the ground” to effectively bring about change.

Related posts:

  1. Trafficked Victims or Labor Migrants? The Indentured Mobility of Filipina Hostess Workers in Japan – Kimberly Kay Hoang reviews Rhacel Parrenas’ new book: Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo
  2. Migrant Domestic Workers in Egypt: A Case Study of the Economic Family in Global Context by Chantal Thomas
  3. Slavery, forced labor, debt bondage, and human trafficking: from conceptional confusion to targeted solutions by Ann Jordan
  5. Human Rights and the New UN Protocols on Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling: A Preliminary Analysis by Anne Gallagher