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Forced Labor Politics Slavery Crime Criminals Housing Jail Systems People Reproduce in those too, you see. Jews?

Forced labour: it's about politics, not crime

Maybe it's about sex and rape. Not to mention, sax and violins!~

The fight against modern-day slavery isn't a battle against abstract economic forces or crime, but a political and moral struggle over the kind of society we want to live in.

A Bangladeshi worker carries a basket of clay pottery in Dhaka. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Neil Howard in Florence

Thursday 7 November 2013 11.12 ESTLast modified on Thursday 22 May 201403.51 EDT

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For many NGOs, governments and development agencies, there are two principal causes of forced labour: poverty, which makes people vulnerable to exploitation, and criminality, in the form of employers willing to exploit the poor.

The problem with this narrative is that it's totally apolitical. It takes poverty and criminal exploitation as abstract phenomena, when in reality both are human creations.

The current political discourse routinely talks of poverty as if it's a 'thing', a tangible enemy that can be 'eradicated' or 'made history'. Yet poverty isn't a thing, it's a concept, a word we use to describe the state of people not having enough resources. It is 'the condition of being poor', a politico-legal phenomenon, like the condition of others being rich.

If poverty is man-made, then, so too is the vulnerability that it leads to. The American scholar and activist, Robert Lee Hale, put this starkly in 1923. "A man must eat," he said. "Yet while there is no law against eating in the abstract, there is a law which forbids him to eat any of the food which actually exists in the community – and that is the law of private property. Unless he can produce his own food, 'the law compels him to starve if he has no wages, and to go without wages unless he obeys the behests of some employer'."

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So in the context of forced labour, when we say for instance that an Indian peasant farmer is 'vulnerable to bonded labour', what we actually mean is that an Indian peasant farmer may have to choose the lesser evil of bonded labour over thegreater evil of starvation (pdf). The prevailing legal regime enshrines his lack of entitlement to land, financial support, food, childcare, or other necessary social protection.

We can therefore legitimately argue that the existing legal framework, and political decisionscreate or maintain poverty, pushing people into the hands of those who are prepared to exploit them. In this sense, poverty, vulnerability and the criminality of trafficking are all man-made.

But criminality is man-made in another sense too. Over the past four decades, governments around the world have systematically de-regulated labour markets, shrunk the size of their labour inspectorates, and devolved labour protection either onto poor communities themselves or the very employers from whom that protection is often sought.

According to some, this has been necessary to promote economic growth. But it has also undoubtedly led to workers working without adequate police protection.The Morecambe Bay disaster has demonstrated how tragic the consequences of this can be in the UK, while in the US, the abuses it has led to in agriculture are now widespread.

When looked at from this perspective, the fight against forced labour ceases to be a simple battle against abstract economic forces or the bogey-men criminals able to make the most of them. It becomes at once a political, practical and moral struggle over the kinds of societies we wish to live in, the kinds of coercive pressures we consider legitimate in labour relations, and the kinds of social and labour protections our politicians have a duty to provide us.

The questions we must ask ourselves, therefore, are fundamental. Do we wish to live in a world where some are left unprotected against the brute force of economic compulsion? Or do we want a world where wealth is sufficiently well distributed for people to be free from taking the least undesirable jobs available? Do we want a world where individual criminals can exploit the social and economic vulnerability created by politicians? Or do we prefer a fairer politico-economic future that tackles the political root causes of exploitation?

For too long, these questions have been off the table. In the age of 'capitalist realism' (pdf), it is unthinkable to mention the politics of distribution, let alone challenge the logic of the unfettered market. Those who dared to do so were banished to the margins of political debate, and deemed 'radical' or 'idealistic'.

But it's time for that to change. If forced labour is fundamentally a political phenomenon, then it's only by engaging politically that we'll ever be able to tackle it effectively. This begins by acknowledging that it's people who create the conditions for exploitation, and that it's people who can un-make them if they want to.

Neil Howard is a Marie Curie Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. You can find him on Twitter here: @NeilPHoward.

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