The Politics of Forced Labour

The recent trial of a group of Irish Travellers (or Parvee) accused of forcing vulnerable people into forced labour or slavery unsurprisingly hit the headlines. A perfect reactionary story, a specific instance distorting the wider truth: that in fact that Irish travellers as an ethnic group are the most marginalised in terms of education, wages & housing in the UK is instantly drowned out by this one story.  Here, through the lens of the media they become the oppressors, the torch bearers in fact, for a outmoded & outlawed & barbaric practice that only people continuously portrayed as beneath, or outside of the realms of reasonable human behaviour would be capable of.  An Ostracism, justified.

Slavery, or forced labour, then, is universally and incontestably condemned. Its contemporary versions, most commonly  encountered through the shocking stories of people smuggling & sex-trafficking are the targets of both legislative and media attention.

With Sex Trafficking, the “victim” is portrayed as a coerced “prostitute”. Young, vulnerable, female & powerless – always a victim in need of protection by the benevolent state. This has also led to a law-making and a policing practice which has little to do with protecting the sex worker and everything to with satisfying tabloid editors & the sex work prohibition lobby. Moreover, it provides a human rights cloak for ever harsher immigration legislation.

With the  2012 Olympics  almost upon us we are being told to prepare for  a horde of foreign “prostitutes”  descending on London. Only the “terrorist threat” is apparently more concerning than the STD apocalypse than all these smuggled foreign whores will bring upon us. Of course, as with the predicted terrorist activity, this feared mass influx of sex workers, forced or otherwise will prove to be a baseless myth, as it had done with  so many other recent sporting events.

The x-talk project, a education project run by and for sex workers has this to say:

“These claims can lead to anti-trafficking policies and policing practices that target sex workers. In London, anti-trafficking practices have resulted in raids on brothels, closures and arbitrary arrests of people working in the sex industry. This creates a climate of fear among workers, leaving them less likely to report crimes against them and more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. “

While condemning the apparent use of forced labour at the Traveller site and legislating against sex trafficking, in April this year the Home office brought in legislation that will ensure far wider spread exploitation and abuse. Domestic workers who apply to accompany their employers to the UK will now be tied to one employer. In other words they become  – to use UKBA’s odious label  – an “immigration offender” if they leave their employer – and likely homeless and destitute. Domestic Worker pressure group & union Kalayaan stated:

“Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to horrific abuse and exploitation as has come to light in a number of recent high profile cases in the criminal courts. Of the 326 individuals who registered with Kalayaan in 2011, 54% experienced psychological abuse, 18% physical and 7% sexual abuse. Exploitation was also rife, with 76% not allowed a day off, 53% working 16 hours-a-day and 60% paid under £50 per week.”


Nandita Sharma, in a paper given at Nottingham earlier this year  provides further analysis within the North American context on this  apparent inconsistency on forced labour. While it is within control of the State & the employer it is good and their unfree status unremarkable. When it operates outside its control it is bad and worthy of headlines and firm action. It is slavery. She also points out how on the one hand the topic of “illegal workers” is an incendiary subject, while on the other workers brought in by employers to work in US territory under conditions & pay unacceptable to most US citizens is not a subject of controversy or even discussion  – despite their working conditions being in breach of the US constitution.

Even  against the severe risks of  incarceration and deportation which Sans Papiers face its no longer clear that being a “legalised” foreign guest worker with such conditions attached has much or in fact anything to recommend it. In fact, it may seem the contrary is the case, and perhaps that is the point.  The ever-so- temporary work visa is fast becoming the only route of entry for non-elite workers into the EU & North America.

Further Reading/Links:

Anderson, Bridget and Andrijasevic, Rutvica (2008). Sex, slaves and citizens: the politics of anti-trafficking. Soundings, 2008(40), pp. 135–145.

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