Trafficking of labour in Global Supply Chains: Understanding the central debates

Dr Sophy K J, postdoctoral research associate

Critical engagement with contemporary discourses on extreme exploitation such as ‘modern slavery’, ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘indenture labour’ and ‘bonded labour’ throw open not only academic debate on forms of neo-servitude, but also outlines the failures of regulatory approaches on the ground which have for centuries sought to address the historical crime of slavery. The international conference on “Human Trafficking & Supply Chains: Corporate Responsibility Beyond Transparency Legislation” held at India Habitat Centre and the National Law University Delhi on 18-19th November, 2019, brought together scholars from several disciplinary fields to deliberate upon the continuum of older forms of forced labour and forms of trafficking within newer employment practices.

The Opening Session of the Conference emphasised that without challenging the causal factors of structural inequality based on caste, ethnicity, gender and class, the solutions would be non-specific, procedural and simplistic. The session deliberated upon various forms of reactions from different stake holders, the state, academia and social movements, to combat trafficking in India. There was consensus on the argument that conflating all sex work with trafficking and further criminalisation of sex workers’ livelihood makes them more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination in society. This perspective opened further deliberations on better approaches to counter human trafficking. Dr. Hila Shamir argued for a paradigm shift in anti-trafficking policy: a move away from the currently predominant human rights approach to trafficking and the adoption of a labour approach that targets the structure of labour markets prone to severely exploitative labour practices. According to her, a labour paradigm offers more effective strategies for combating trafficking by adopting five measures such as (1) preventing the criminalization and deportation of workers who report exploitation; (2) eliminating binding arrangements; (3) reducing recruitment fees and the power of middlemen; (4) guaranteeing the right to unionize; and (5) extending and enforcing the application of labour and employment laws to vulnerable workers.

Prof. Prabha Kotiswaran (principal investigator of this project), while critiquing the criminal justice approach to trafficking, articulated a critique of the labour approach to trafficking (which presumes the existence of a formal economy in the Global North) by referring to substantially different configurations of the state, market, civil society and legal system in the Global South. She argued that Global South countries tailor their labour laws to the informal economy while envisaging a robust role for the developmental state in addressing fundamental economic inequalities (by guaranteeing rural employment and workfare) that renders workers vulnerable to trafficking to begin with. Hence, the need to deviate from conventional regulatory responses, especially carceral approaches to ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ and instead implement domestic labour and social welfare laws which are themselves the result of long-term struggles for decent work and against extreme exploitation. She explained judicial activism around defining ‘forced labour’ and possibilities of taking it further to deal with forced labour and trafficking.

Further, various sessions of the conference also addressed practices of trafficking and the lack of regulatory regime in varied employment sites such as sex work, garment production, migrant domestic work and construction work. These sessions interrogated the common predicament of workers’ struggles for dignity and recognition in the domain of work, especially in ‘stigmatised labour’. The discussions around dignity, respectability and recognition challenged structural inequalities based on gender, caste, class and ethnicity. Deliberations on solutions and the way forward problematised inadequate regulatory or compliance regimes as a reason for the non-recognition of various forms of labour, especially women’s work including care work and sexual labour, and queried whether the concept of social reproduction can help recognise different forms of women’s labour and secure rights, entitlements and justice. The conference apprised how at a time of underemployment, unemployment and starvation; workers are often entrapped in unfair labour practices amounting to trafficking. Participants concluded that empowering workers by securing their rights is preferable to arrest trafficking in labour sectors, then treating workers as victims and engaging in ‘piecemeal tinkering’ through raid, rescue and rehabilitation measures.

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