INTERVIEW: Why AFL-CIO sits at the table when its members march in the streets

That’s been one of the challenges for the anti-trafficking movement. There are exceptions – there are some fantastic groups doing really important work – but most of them…

That’s been one of the challenges for the anti-trafficking movement. There are exceptions – there are some fantastic groups doing really important work – but most of them don’t come out with a huge critique of the neoliberal model, right? It’s about freeing the slaves, that whole framework. But if you free a group of slaves and don’t change the system that allows people to be slaves, you’re not addressing the systemic problem.

Neil: So in other words modern-day slavery is often being used as a fig leaf for distracting attention away from the structures underpinning all exploitation.

Cathy: Correct. There are many reasons people get into this field. The labour movement believes that to really address forced labour and trafficking, strengthening workers’ rights must be part of the solution and workers must be part of shaping the needed policies and programmes. Some organisations working in the field definitely come from a faith-based perspective or a moral calling, and they do not see worker rights as a key issue. I believe many groups don’t want to address root causes. They instead want to frame it entirely from a moral standpoint and not engage in the needed work to transform a system that has produced enormous wealth and at the same time extreme exploitation.

I find it so interesting that the libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley has been a major funder of modern-day slavery and anti-trafficking work. Remember when everybody was clapping their hands a few months ago about essential workers? At the same time there was huge opposition from the business community to a temporary emergency health and safety standard that would have helped keep people safe and healthy during the pandemic. Huge opposition. But these same people were taking out hundred-thousand-dollar ads in the Washington Post saying we salute our frontline workers who are getting sick without supporting regulations to ensure worker safety during a pandemic. It’s rank hypocrisy.

The pandemic has also further exposed the lack of protection for migrant workers throughout global supply chains and in the care economy. Many of these same companies that fund anti-trafficking programmes also benefit from weak protections for migrant workers. The system of work visas, recruitment fees, and the constant threat of deportation make migrant workers vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour.

To go even broader, it’s the same critique we have about traditional corporate social responsibility. CSR is not about systemic change. It’s about public relations and not about transforming the way you do business. That is why the labour movement supports models that are worker-driven and binding, that are shaped by workers, and that come with real consequences when there are violations.

Neil: Are we thus doing a disservice to progressive forces and to labour generally by using the terms forced labour, human trafficking, or modern-day slavery, given that they are so clearly exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo?

Cathy: ‘Forced labour’ is a term that’s well defined, and its elimination is a fundamental principle of the ILO. It just says what it is: you’re forced to labour. That’s clear.

Now ‘modern slavery’, that’s a very problematic term. The United States is still grappling with slavery and what that has meant for our economic system. Our current system was built on exploitation of labour and particularly the labour of people of colour, who were enslaved. And you can see how our system continues to be built around that. So I’m not sure we need the word ‘modern-day’. I don’t know why we need to change that framework. We’re trying to take on an economic system that creates huge wealth and profit for a few through enslavement and exploitation. There’s nothing modern about that.

The current debates in the United States are, in a very positive way, causing people to really look at what it has meant that this country’s system is built off the enslavement of people of colour. That’s the other piece that I never hear from the trafficking and modern-day slavery movement. Perhaps I’m just not in the right rooms for these conversations, but we don’t hear about the intersection with race in all of this. You can see this clearly in Mauritania or around ethnicity in the Uyghur region in China. You have to create a construct of others to justify subjecting them to the most severe forms of exploitation in your system. There’s nothing modern about that.

So I’ve never quite understood why ‘modern-day’ has been added to ‘slavery’. We’ve had this neoliberal model for over 40 years, and within the context of that model it was framed as modern. But we know that the whole system is built on that.

Neil: That’s actually one reason for pause around the definition of forced labour. It’s a clear enough idea, but the definition is inherently individualising. It’s about interpersonal coercion, not the structural coercion inherent to capitalism and market life. This individual focus hides why some people have no other option but to take bad and exploitative work.

Cathy: There are of course individual power dynamics involved in certain instances, but it all comes back to a system. Again, I’m focused these days on working with a global coalition to eliminate forced labour in the Uyghur region of China. We knew from the beginning of the campaign that we would need to move beyond a campaign of moral shaming to one focused on ending the economic structures supporting forced labour. Sometimes people ask why we’re doing a corporate campaign around this. Well, it’s because we are trying to undo the ways that corporations benefit from a system of forced labour in that region.

The labour movement approaches this as we do with everything, by looking at systems and the need for a collective response. You’re not going to address forced labour by having individuals raise their hands and say, ‘please change my work conditions.’ We’ve never found that to be the way that you shape power relations. If trafficking affects some of the most vulnerable workers, including migrants, then you must look at programmes that support migrant worker organising and power building in migrant communities. So I understand the importance of that critique, but I’m not sure that’s how the labour movement has ever viewed it. The way we take on forced labour is from a systems approach and from a collective response.

Neil: We’ve reached the twentieth anniversary of the Palermo Protocol on trafficking. What’s your take? Has it been a success? Or has it caused more trouble than it is worth?

Cathy: Whenever you have one of these anniversaries, I think it’s important to pause and remind yourself that all these pieces of global architecture are flawed. They’re imperfect. They have been put through a tripartite or multilateral set of negotiations, and they’ve come out very watered down. So the real question we as movement should be asking is, ‘were we able to use the focus on this piece of global architecture to build effective movements?’

I’m less interested in the UN meetings of people flitting around and talking about it. I want to know if we used that global architecture to fuel effective global movements to end trafficking and to end the systems that allow trafficking and forced labour to occur. And if you ask that question, I would say we’re not there yet.

The way supply chains have been built allows precarious workers to have work one day and no work the next. Some of what goes on in the Uyghur region is simply astonishing. Our clothes and technology have been made with forced labour and all I hear are companies telling me, ‘well, you don’t know how complicated it is to leave China.’

We have not yet used Palermo to build effective movements to transform the system that allows this type of extreme labour exploitation to occur. And so we need to ask ourselves, in this current moment, is that a tool that is still effective? Is there something more that we need? I would say that if your movement does not have an analysis of power, and does not have an analysis of the intersection of how power works and of changing the economic system, then your movement does not have the elements it needs to carry out what was in the spirit of Palermo.


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