Good and Bad Practice in eliminating forced labour

Let me start first with a concept, and let me apologise if for some of this is, as we would say in Ireland, stating the bleeding obvious.

Empirical research by Anti-Slavery International and others shows that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three factors individual vulnerability, social exclusion and failure in rule of law.

In Europe those who end up in forced labour tend to be poor women and men who are generally subject to wider social prejudice because of their migratory status, ethnicity, sexuality or indeed because of their particular personal vulnerabilities in the case of substance dependant or mentally challenged individuals.

This reality strikes at the very principles of equality before the law and of rule of law itself in this community of nations.

Let me try to illustrate this with a case that we encountered recently: A group of Polish construction workers came to a police station in England to complain about not being paid and about their working conditions. They did not speak much English and were swiftly turned away as the police deemed this not to be their matter. Another group of Polish workers who worked for the same construction project complained to another police station and were met with the same response.

The workers then decided to ask their families back in Poland for the money to return home.

Upon their return home, they complained to the Polish authorities about their treatment in the UK and about the inaction of the UK authorities. The Polish authorities took the matter up with the UK embassy.

Eventually, following the complaints from the Polish authorities, the UK police investigated the case and ended up prosecuting the recruiter that trafficked the Polish workers in the UK for labour trafficking.

Now there are a number of important lessons from this case:

First this case illustrates the importance of governments acting on behalf of their migrant citizens. It was the intervention of the Polish government here that compelled the British authorities to action. I would argue that there is a universality to this lesson. The remittances of migrant workers across the world are vital for poverty reduction and human development in their home countries. The contribution that migrant workers are making to the countries of their birth indicts their home governments failures to fulfil their international responsibilities towards their citizens. Aside from the moral and legal responsibilities of governments towards their citizens their failure to do more to protect migrants is short-sighted economically as it could help them obtain decent work and hence higher remittances.

This is as true for Asia and Africa as it is for Europe. And, looking a bit beyond our own European borders it would be an important European initiative against trafficking and towards poverty reduction if we were to support financially and professionally the establishment of a more comprehensive system of labour attaches for those migrants who we are seeing most exploited in the countries where there is most exploitation.

Across the Gulf migrant workers speak with envy of their Filipino colleagues whose government attaches some importance to this sort of support for their migrant citizens. That government’s position and that of the migrant workers of other countries would be strengthened if more governments were to act in this way. Perhaps European support to such measures could stem somewhat the bloodshed of vulnerable workers unleashed by FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The second key lesson from this case is that failure in rule of law often begins when those charged with upholding the law do not know what the law is and what their responsibilities under the law are. If the police in this case had bothered to pick up a phone to obtain a translator and to explore the accounts of the workers against the indicators of forced labour they would have found that they were being presented with an enormous opportunity to deal with something that is explicitly recognised as a major crime in British, let alone European, law.

In spite of the advances of national and European law on forced labour over the past few years there clearly is not yet a general police culture in the UK that appreciates adequately the nature of forced labour and trafficking in a way that they would for other crimes of violence. I suspect this is true for much of Europe and it is certainly true for most of the rest of the world. While there needs to be greater professional police and other criminal justice training to understand their diverse roles and responsibilities towards this crime there is still, particularly in this era of public spending cuts, a need for specialist units to support local efforts and to help lead and develop police and criminal justice policy and practice through example.

However, going back to what I said at the start of these remarks, on the centrality of social exclusion in the sustaining of forced labour in any society. It is wholly without credibility to presume that any police force is going to be immune from the prejudices of the wider society from which they are drawn and to whose elite they report. It is not fanciful to suggest that the police who encountered these Polish workers may have regarded them with some disdain and some may even have felt that their responsibilities towards foreigners in exploitative employment were lesser than those towards locally born citizens.

It is beholden upon leaders across Europe and the world to take active steps to eradicate these sort of prejudices, sanctioning public officials who disgrace their offices by pandering to their bigotries rather than upholding rule of law.This is a matter that goes right to the top: as Roger Plant mentioned earlier today the UK is currently making great claims that it is going to establish a world leading law against slavery. But the same department that is promulgating this law maintains a system for migrant domestic workers that facilitates their enslavement using identically the same principles as the Gulf’s Kafalah system that facilitates the enslavement of migrant workers there. The British Government has refuse all entreaties to change this because it is terrified of being seen as “soft of migrants”.

Chomsky argues that propaganda is to democracies as violence is to dictatorships: the means by which governments control their populations. But perhaps matters have evolved somewhat. Perhaps in parts of Europe the propaganda of parts of the agenda setting media is usurping the authority of elected officials and controlling their choices and actions. In the UK for example it appears that the enslavement of migrant domestic workers is more tolerable to the British Government than upsetting the Daily Mail newspaper.

To counter this I would not argue for restrictions on media freedom, but rather for the adoption of moral courage by political leaders: a key front in the struggle against trafficking in Europe must be the explicit rejection of the pernicious anti-migrant rhetoric which some powerful elites in the media and politics seek to perpetuate.

Slavery is a crime but its effective eradication requires more than a narrow criminal justice approach. It requires a rethinking of aid, trade and diplomacy as well as criminal justice. And within our own common European homeland it requires a repudiation of the causes, in particular anti-migrant bigotry, as well as its consequences.

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