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A sketch of a ‘labour approach’ to forced labour? Highlights from our community

created Mar 31, 2016 07:05 PM


By Marja Paavilainen, former Chief Technical Adviser, ILO Forced Labour Action in the Asian Region (FLARE project)

It is nearly two years since the launch of the AP-Forced Labour Net. Now, our Community of Practice is preparing to take an indefinite break, and it is a good time to look at some of the highlights of our community.

When we started, the AP-Forced Labour Net had an open agenda that allowed it to respond to the needs of the community. Looking back a common thread however emerges in the different contributions by our community members. These contributions have together sketched out a strategy, which can be called a “labour approach” to forced labour. Let me draw together some of these threads.

The main feature of a labour approach to forced labour – or trafficking in persons or slavery, if those are your preferred terms – is that, as the term suggests, it sees these atrocious practices primarily as labour issues. That is, as criminal labour practices existing on the fringes of our labour markets. Therefore, rather than only emphasizing finding and prosecuting individuals at fault, the labour approach puts an emphasis on addressing the structural or systemic factors in our labour markets that make women, men and children vulnerable to forced labour.

Our community kicked off with an online discussion, What is forced labour, trafficking in persons and slavery: Do definitions matter, and why?, which looked precisely at the question of how we understand forced labour and related forms of exploitation. Many discussants called for a cohesive response that addresses the connection between labour practices and criminal exploitation. This linkage was further discussed from a legal perspective by Tim De Meyer in his blog Exploitation vs. forced labour – What can we learn from international labour standards?

What, then, are those structural factors making women, men and children vulnerable to forced labour? Examples shared in our community include poor labour protection in at-risk industries, restrictive migration policies, fraudulent recruitment practices, and a deeply-rooted culture of exploitation of minority or underprivileged segments of society. In her blog, Creating the choices needed to end forced labour and child labour, Simrin Singh noted that reducing these vulnerabilities requires creating “real choices” out of forced labour, and shared examples of actions that have helped create such real choices. Practical examples were similarly shared by community members during the online discussions, Fair recruitment, how can we make it work? and Eradicating Forced and Child Labour from the Supply Chains: How to Institute Real Change?

Looking from a labour perspective, what is most important in helping victims of forced labour? One key point is access to compensation to recover unpaid wages, restore justice and prevent re-trafficking. In her blog Money talks: Why compensation could be the best tool in the fight to combat forced labour Anna Olsen looked at forced labour from an exploited individual’s perspective, and noted that in reality access to compensation remains a distant dream for many victims of forced labour. A number of distressing stories of exploited migrant workers, and challenges in helping them, were similarly shared by participants in our Online course on preventing and addressing forced labour and trafficking in persons in East and South-East Asia.

Forced labour is a human rights issue, a labour issue and a crime prevention issue. But, it is also a trade issue and a business issue. Emerging trade and business perspectives and the “market” for respecting fundamental workers’ rights were discussed by Maurizio Bussi in his blog Entering a new era of economic integration and free trade: The importance of eradicating forced labour and human trafficking. Further practical examples of company and industry level action were, again, shared by our community members during the online discussion, Eradicating forced and child labour from the supply chains: How to institute real change?

Many organizations, including the ILO, have already for years applied the labour approach in their practical work. Recognition of its importance in the anti-trafficking debate has steadily gained strength over time.

Two international legal standards embodying this approach were adopted by the ILO tripartite constituents in June 2014, namely the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, and the Recommendation supplementing it. Their adoption was the culmination of a long process, which Thetis Mangahas describes vividly in her blog Making history: The journey to modernize action against forced labour. Important background and country perspectives to the paradigm shift was also provided by Piyamal Pichaiwongse in her blog From rights to duties in protecting people against forced labour: Some observations from Myanmar and the ILC Forced Labour Committee.

The question then arises, is this labour approach to forced labour, trafficking in persons and slavery the “magic bullet” solution? Not entirely. Other approaches – primarily criminal justice and human right approaches – are significant and complementary pieces in the puzzle. As Beate Andrees noted in her blog Coherence or fragmentation? Towards joint action against forced labour, human trafficking and slavery, it is time to connect the dots and to move beyond fragmented approaches.

Debates on how to best address forced labour, trafficking and slavery will surely continue in the years to come, both online and offline. I hope that the exchange of ideas and views on AP- Forced Labour Net has contributed a little to our common understanding of these issues.

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