Monitoring labour exploitation in the Asia-Pacific

| May 12, 2022

The exploitation of labour has never been so widespread as today. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Asia-Pacific region has the greatest absolute number of forced labourers, with somewhere around 11 million people at any one time, while the global total is approximately 21 million. These numbers likely underestimate the scale of the problem though. Forced labour and the related problem of human trafficking can be incredibly difficult to research and accurately document as they are often hidden issues.

Labour exploitation in the Asia-Pacific takes many forms and falls under a range of international and local laws. Human trafficking, as defined in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Supress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, involves the recruitment, transfer, harbouring, and receipt of persons for the purpose of exploitation. Forced labour is a broader term, intended to capture any experience of work not undertaken voluntarily and under menace of penalty, such as threats or violence, and from which a person may not easily extricate themselves (see ILO Forced Labour Convention).

In preference to human trafficking or forced labour, the term “modern-day slavery” is increasingly used by non-government organisations and policymakers alike. For example, Australia’s key piece of anti-trafficking legislation, which passed in December 2018is known as the Modern Slavery Act. Modern slavery, arguably, has a wider appeal and popular resonance, as slavery is a term that is immediately evocative of force, exploitation, unfreedom, and violence.

Yet as evocative as modern slavery is, it is distinct from traditional chattel slavery in several important ways. According to Kevin Bales, the key defining feature of modern slavery is “disposability,” which he contrasts with traditional notions of chattel slavery, in which there is a long-term relationship between slave owners and slaves, underwritten by legal ownership, high costs and relatively low supply of slaves, and a view of slaves as a long-term financial investment in which slaves’ welfare and maintenance are key features.

In contrast, the conditions which produce modern slavery include an almost limitless supply of individuals willing or desperate to accept tenuous work or migration opportunities, the low purchase cost for slave holders, and little incentive to maintain these workers. They therefore become disposable and easily replaceable. Possibly one of the clearest examples of this is seen in the offshore fishing industry in the Asia-Pacific, where migrant fishers from countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines experience extremely hazardous working conditions.

These fishers endure shifts of up to 20 hours a day, a lack of decent rest and food, violence and punitive actions by overseers, high exposure to workplace illnesses or injury, and, for many, death as a result of injuries or violence inflicted. The disposability of these workers is underwritten by a ready supply of prospective workers available to replace those cast off.

Within the Asia-Pacific, labour exploitation is especially common for migrant workers, who lack the protections of citizenship rights and who often enter destination countries on restrictive and disadvantageous employment contracts or as irregular migrant workers. Beyond the offshore fishing industry, labour exploitation has been documented in agriculture and plantations, manufacturing, food processing, commercial sex and nightlife entertainment, paid domestic work, the garment industry, and construction work.

One of the main areas of focus in Australia’s Modern Slavery Act has been to attempt to achieve supply chain transparency in imported goods and services to identify and take action against companies who are unable to demonstrate that their supply chains are slave-free.

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery have come to be strongly associated with “sex trafficking.”  This reflects the history of international discourse on human trafficking since the assentation of the UN Trafficking Protocol, which contains a special focus on women and children. Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation is undoubtedly a major concern with the region, and the UN estimates that three persons out of every 1000 in the Asia-Pacific are sex trafficked, compared to the global average of 1.8 per 1000.

These figures, and the prominence of sex trafficking in popular media and among anti-trafficking stakeholders, has meant that understandings and responses to this form of trafficking are much more developed than other sectors. For example, responses to trafficking and forced labour among men and boys are far less developed than those oriented to women in the sex industry.

Some justice sector stakeholders in the region  are still struggling to accept that men and boys – especially those with formal education – can be trafficked at all. In one legal case regarding the trafficking of fishing crew in the Philippines, the judge would not accept that highly-educated Filipino men could be trafficked because they could read and understand employment contracts.

Similarly, there has been a general reluctance throughout the region to accept women who migrate as foreign domestic workers as possible victims of forced labour and human trafficking, primarily because they migrate through regular channels and hold employment contracts. These engrained preconceptions are a major barrier to a greater understanding of labour exploitation in all its forms throughout the region. Sensationalist accounts of sex trafficking must be held partly responsible for these misperceptions and stereotypes.

Some academic research is seeking to conceptualise labour exploitation with the Asia-Pacific through approaches that consider “slow violence” and “banal exploitation.” These foci are welcome because at their base is a concern that there are many individuals who experience hyper-exploitative work conditions but may not be quite “trafficked enough” or “forced enough” to qualify as victims and receive support.

Here, an understanding of how unfree labour is accumulated within an individual’s experience is important to document and understand. This lens also enables the understanding that labour exploitation is widespread and often routinised within the Asia-Pacific and can occur in legal and formalised migration stints as well as among undocumented migrants. Such a perspective also helps re-embed experiences of the hyper-exploitation of labour in the vulnerabilities created by structural conditions associated with neoliberal economic globalisation and displacement due to civil conflict and climate change.

Future research on labour exploitation in the Asia-Pacific should consider the value of victims’ voices in guiding understandings and actions to address exploitation in all its forms. This would go some way toward redressing the commonly held view that victims are powerless and completely lacking in agency.

It is also high time to revisit the meanings of justice for cases of forced labour and human trafficking, again by ascribing more value to what justice means for victims themselves, rather than seeing justice as exclusively tied to criminal prosecutions, which have yielded little success to date – either as a disincentive to exploiters or as a means of realising closure for victims.

Finally, while there is increasing data of victims, there is still comparatively little knowledge about traffickers, or about the vulnerability of families left behind when migrants experience hardship and exploitation. Making inroads into addressing labour exploitation in all its forms will rest on the commitment to actions informed not only by greater research, but also research which is able to shift beyond some of the hype associated with sex slavery and supply chains.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.

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