Journalism and Slavery: Some issues in reporting forced and child labour today

Thomson Reuters Foundation, 16 Nov 2015

imageIt is rare these days to come across anybody who explicitly supports slavery. Certainly there are those perpetrators who would like you to believe that they are doing their victims a favour. But by and large the political and business elites of the world are united in their condemnation of slavery, and will uniformly express anguish at the thought of children and vulnerable workers being subject to the cruelties of traffickers.  However that apparent consensus masks a more complex reality.

Slavery is a profoundly political issue, both in that it is about power and exclusion from power, and in that it is a hugely contentious subject touching upon some of the most disputed areas of international law and policy.

Indeed some even contend that slavery is not a political issue at all, that it is merely a technical one, and principally one of law enforcement at that. This perspective seems to be a favoured one of the current British Government, the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales, and a few naive philanthropists. They seem to regard the ending of slavery as a relatively straightforward matter that requires evil people to be locked up by decent cops.

There are however some profound problems with that view. For a start it presumes that slavery is everywhere illegal. But this is a tenuous presumption.

For example many of you will be familiar with the reports of systematic use of forced labour in Qatar to build the infrastructure for the World Cup. Or some of you may have seen the BBC Newsnight report from 12 Nov in which an Indian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia described have her arm chopped off by her employer as a punishment. It should be noted that the Saudi authorities dispute her account, saying she lost her arm “trying to escape”, and in denying complicity in mutilation they confirm complicity in slavery.

At the root of both these systems of enslavement is what is called the Kafala system, which is a “sponsorship” system that ties workers to their employers to such an extent that even in the most abusive employment relationships, up to and including forced labour, the workers cannot change jobs or even leave the country to go home.

It is a cynical system to legally facilitate medieval levels of exploitation up to and including slavery across the entire Arabian peninsula.

It is also essentially the same system that the UK government has in place for migrant domestic workers to this country. The UK system of overseas domestic workers visas ties workers to employers to such an extent that it de facto legalises the trafficking for forced domestic servitude. Migrant domestic workers know that if they try to leave the employer to whom their visa is tied, irrespective of their treatment, they will minimally be risking impoverishment and unemployment, and are likely to be deported. And that places in the hands of unscrupulous employers an enormously powerful threat to hold over the head of any vulnerable worker hoping to improve their own life and that of their family through hard work.

In other words the cases of UK overseas domestic workers, and Arabian kafala show how too frequently the law, intentionally or otherwise, can be a means to facilitate enslavement.

Furthermore for law enforcement to be the only approach necessary to end slavery also presumes that genuine rule of law exists in a jurisdiction, rather than laws being regarded as merely suggestions to the elite. For example in India there is much decent anti-slavery law. And yet, corrupt police forces and overburdened court systems mean that such law is meaningless for those, such as Dalits and Adavasi, most vulnerable to slavery.

We saw this in the course of a piece of research that we did into forced and child labour in Indian garment manufacture. In this we spoke to children who worked in some of the garment workshops of Delhi. They told us that the only encounters they had with the police were when they were arrested and held as hostages to stop work because their employers had not paid the appropriate bribes.

In India there is also such limited labour inspection that it will never trouble those factory owners who enslave young women and girls to produce the cotton thread that doubtless forms a sizeable percentage of the garments we are each wearing this morning.

A few years ago I met a young woman journalist who was trying to write a positive story on the efforts to end the various forms of slavery in Indian textiles. She was threatened with arrest by the Indian police as an economic terrorist. I fear what sort of threats journalists or civil society in India would now face if they were to try to expose such abuses, given the increasing intolerance and clamp-downs on freedom of speech that Prime Minister Modi is enacting.

So: when you consider the contemporary manifestations of slavery and child labour across the world we see that an alternative perspective is necessary to the simplistic law enforcement one, one that recognises that slavery emerges in the opportunities for exploitation that are presented to unscrupulous individuals in national and international law and policy as it relates in particular to education and human development, employment, trade, migration and rule of law itself.

This perspective illuminates that there is much greater responsibility for slavery than evil criminal godfathers or unscrupulous business executives. Because slavery can only really thrive where governments fail to in their duties of promoting human development and protecting human rights.

A few weeks ago I was visiting cocoa-growing communities in Ghana. There the risk of child labour is exacerbated by the fact that too few of those communities have schools, and even if the kids get to school there is so little provision of vocational and entrepreneurial education for adolescents and young adults that many of them become vulnerable to trafficking for forced labour once they leave school, as they follow risky paths in search of scarce decent work.

And in India Prime Minister Modi intends to reduce factory inspections, and permit child labour as a means of reinforcing the caste system, amongst other so-called labour market reforms. Whatever Modi’s intention the consequence will be to make forced and child labour abuses much more likely across India and hence increase the likelihood that any goods or commodities produced there are tainted by slavery like practices.

In short: if, as journalists, you want to judge whether a government, or anyone for that matter, is actually against slavery it will require a deeper consideration of their policies and practices.

The UK government claims that it wishes to be a world leader in the struggle against slavery. And yet just this month Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said that human rights is no longer a priority in the Foreign Office, and instead was supplanted by the”prosperity” agenda.

We see that reflected in the warm embrace the British government has given to Prime Minister Modi and the prospect of trade deals with an India whose supply chains are rife with forced and child labour, and, even more bizarrely, with Saudi Arabia, who remain valued partners in spite of their systematic and entrenched practices of slavery, their intent to crucify a child for protesting for democracy, and their creation and sponsorship of DAESH, Islamic State.

Billy Connolly once said, ”Hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse”.

We see that clearly in relation to much of the contemporary political discourse on slavery, were many politicians and a few philanthropist crave the title “the new Wilberforce” after the British parliamentarian who obtained the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th Century. However, unlike Wilberforce, most of these lack the moral courage or clarity of thought to challenge the vested interests and the political-economic structures that enable so much contemporary slavery.

We see this hypocrisy also in relation to the poisonous immigration debate across Europe. We have seen how establishing safe migration for vulnerable workers is a key issue in ending trafficking. Both the Arabian kafala system and the UK’s systems of tied visas offer opportunities of legal migration to poor working people that are little more than supply channels for the provision of forced labour to traffickers.

But the discussions on safe international migration remain mired in xenophobic cant, which both confuses and is confused by the political discourse on trafficking.

At the height of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean this summer, we heard the insistent descriptions by European politicians of those who were facilitating transport of refugees across the Mediterranean as “traffickers”. Trafficking, by definition, is the movement of people for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation. It was very clear, very quickly from diligent reporters on the ground in the Mediterranean that what was going on was not trafficking but the facilitation of smuggling. It is true that once these refugees get to Europe that they will be highly vulnerable to traffickers. But this is at least as much because of the failure of Europe’s leaderships to establish safe and legal migration routes, as it is anything to do with the smugglers.

To this day journalists lazily pick up this language from government press releases and repeat it as if it were objective and neutral fact. I heard on the BBC Today programme just last week smugglers being referred to as traffickers. In doing so journalists play into the hands of those politicians who wish to disguise their inaction in the face of the moral imperative of this refugee crisis by the conflation of smuggling and trafficking. By obfuscating the issues they seek to buy political breathing space in the face of the mounting carnage. When faced with the horrors of the Mediterranean this summer, it was easier for politicians to make grand statements blaming migrant deaths on evil traffickers rather than doing their jobs by seeking the causes of the crisis and identifying more effective responses.

The idea of journalism as a Fourth Estate to hold the powerful to account is a foundational one in modern democratic society. But the powerful who benefit from slavery are not used to being held to account. Often they are used to wealth and respect within their own societies, and to warm receptions in international capitals as “partners in prosperity”. They have been protected in recent years first by the comforting myth that slavery was a thing of the past, and latterly by a new set of fairytales: such as the idea that all that is needed is better policing, or that a few cosy words between the rich and powerful are all that is necessary to uproot the entrenched systems of violence and prejudice that underpin contemporary slavery

imageThe ending of slavery needs many things. But it certainly needs courageous journalism to confront this nonsense and to expose to the scrutiny of citizens the realities of slavery in our contemporary world, and the power structures that underpin it.

Doing that may never be a popular job. But it is a vital one.

Good luck.

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