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Fielding the wrong ball?

a critique of global policy approaches to 'forced labour'

Nicola Phillips
Fabiola Mieres


This paper emerges from a research grant the Chronic Poverty Research Centre for work on ‘Vulnerable Workers in Global Production Networks’, which ran from September 2009 to September 2010. The CPRC’s financial support and other input is gratefully acknowledged by the authors. We also wish to thank colleagues at the ILO and a variety of other organisations who offered us their time in connection with our research. The arguments presented here are entirely ours, as is responsibility for their shortcomings. 

The launching in 2005 of the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Global Alliance Against Forced Labour was emblematic of the growth of global policy interest around this issue. It went along with initiatives elsewhere in the United Nations (UN) system: the so-called Palermo Protocol of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which deals with human trafficking, entered into force in 2003; in 2007 the UN Human Rights Council established a Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which replaced the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery that had been active since 1974; and the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN-GIFT) was also launched in 2007. Other international policy organisations picked up the theme, notably in the Council of Europe Convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which entered into force in 2009. Some national governments have put in place various kinds of legislation adopting the human trafficking rubric, as in the US, UK and many other European countries; alternatively, others have addressed the specific forms of ‘forced’ and child labour which occur in their countries, as in the National Plan for the Eradication of Slave Labour in Brazil, established in 2003, or the successive amendments to laws on child labour in India. Meanwhile, firms and employers, especially the big branded companies, have steadily expanded the range of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, ostensibly paying more attention to issues of forced labour in global supply chains alongside other matters pertaining to labour standards. And some consumers, especially in Europe, are becoming attuned to the issues associated with these extreme ends of the spectrum of exploitation of workers in global and local economies, refracted largely through the ‘trafficking’ discourse and various high-profile exposés of forced and child labour in global supply chains. 

Across these various arenas of policy and activism, it is fair to say that ILO approaches to forced labour dictate the parameters of the issue and the terms on which it is engaged. Inevitably, definitions carry implications not only for theory but also practice. How the ILO defines the concept of forced labour, where it establishes the boundaries of the problem, and, in particular, how it understands the forces driving its emergence and persistence are thus definitive of global policy responses in general. Taking the ILO as a focal point for these reasons, the aim of this paper is critically to scrutinise the dominant approaches to forced labour that have taken shape in the contemporary period. The growing attention to this issue is unquestionably to be welcomed, as is the sustained and highly committed work invested in raising its profile on the part of the ILO and other agencies. Yet we argue here that there are important difficulties with dominant approaches to forced labour,  which arise from what we see as misdirected and partial understandings of the nature of the problem.

On the one hand, we contend that the prevailing approaches are oriented in the main to addressing the manifestations of the problem rather than the complex forces which drive its emergence and persistence in the contemporary global economy. In other words, the problem is understood in terms of its symptoms, as, when and where they appear, rather than in terms of its structural and long-term causes and roots. On the other hand, the prevailing classification of these symptoms (that is, the definition of what constitutes ‘forced labour’) has acted to muddy the bigger picture relating to underlying causes and roots, complicating the possibilities for a fuller understanding of how and why these extreme forms of labour exploitation emerge. Specifically, we view the deficiencies of dominant approaches to lie in a sequence of areas. First, the construction of a separate category of ‘forced labour’, and the framing of forced labour as intrinsically a different problem from other, ‘normal’ kinds of un-decent or exploitative work, is problematic. Second, the labour relations defined as ‘forced labour’ tend, equally problematically, to be approached as an aberration in the normal functioning of global and local labour markets, in ways which obscure the nature of the problem and misdirect efforts to address it. Third, the roots of these highly exploitative labour relations, which lie in large part in the dynamics of poverty and marginalisation within this political-economic context, are still only superficially analysed and poorly incorporated into policy approaches. 

On this basis, we set out an understanding of these kinds of labour relations as embedded in the complex dynamics of ‘adverse incorporation’ into global and local economies. We see these dynamics to be circular in nature. The relations of what the ILO calls ‘forced labour’ are driven by prevailing patterns and forms of poverty and marginalisation, which facilitate forms of ‘adverse incorporation’ into economic activity characterised by high levels of insecurity and vulnerability to severe exploitation. At the same time, these forms of adverse incorporation inhibit the ability of poor workers to engage in accumulation (as opposed to short-term survival) strategies which would enhance their economic and social security in the long-term, thereby entrenching conditions of chronic poverty and marginalisation and perpetuating the circle of vulnerability to exploitation in work. These processes challenge orthodox assumptions, prevalent across the global policy community, that the dynamics of poverty are related to conditions of exclusion from labour markets, and by extension that incorporation through employment is the key to the reduction or eradication of poverty. We argue that these dynamics of adverse incorporation are intrinsic to the constitution and perpetuation of ‘forced labour’, and that they require a much more central place in the dominant policy frameworks surrounding these issues. We elaborate these arguments in what follows, with empirical illustrations drawn from research in Brazil and India. The first section of the paper explores how the issue of forced labour has been defined and understood by the ILO, and by extension across policy communities, and documents what we see to be some of the limitations of the resulting approaches. The second section locates the issues in the context of global production networks (GPNs) and the labour markets that sustain them, challenging the pervasive assumption that these kinds of labour relations represent an aberration in the ‘normal functioning’ of these markets. The third section then links these arguments to the question of poverty, marginalisation and (mal-)development which, in our view, are intrinsic to the ways in which these kinds of labour exploitation need to be understood, but as yet inadequately integrated into prevailing frameworks and approaches. The conclusions pull together the implications of the discussion for policy.

Publication Type(s)

Conference Paper

Ten Years of War Against Poverty Conference Papers

Conference: Ten Years of War Against Poverty


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