The Political Economy of Anti-Trafficking – The Evidence Base

8 November 2018
Research Innovation

Igor Bosc  | Chief Technical Advisor, Work in Freedom Programme, ILO

In August I wrote an article on the political economy of anti-trafficking interventions, highlighting how authorities are far more likely to back anti-trafficking measures that don’t disrupt prevailing power relations in which they have a stake, suggesting that this may explain why so many anti-trafficking interventions fail. In this article, I’ll discuss the evidence of that.

Community orientation session on local employment and migration options. ILO/Prashanth Vishwanathan.

The Work in Freedom programme is a large-scale anti-trafficking programme of the ILO supported by DFID. It focuses on domestic work and garment work – two sectors where vulnerability to human trafficking are considered to be high. The programme aims at reducing vulnerability to trafficking of women in areas with high outflows of migrant women and high in-flows of migrant women as well as along the pathways in between. The programme works in six countries, three destination countries of migrant workers and three countries of origin of migrant workers. To avoid triggering comparative value judgements, the countries involved are not listed. To achieve these aims, Work in Freedom interventions include direct outreach to migrant workers, policy advocacy and institutional development at all three levels: origin, destination and in-between.

How effective can anti-trafficking policies and institutions be if they do not seek to engage with the relevant stakeholders involved in a trafficking situation?

In the first phase, the programme reviewed the content of anti-trafficking and labour policies in countries of destination and origin. The first realization was that every country in the programme already had anti-trafficking policies and institutions in place. However, when reviewing the labour situation for both domestic and garment workers in destination countries, none of the anti-trafficking coordination institutions included representatives of employers, workers or labour recruiters.

From a political economy perspective, this raises two questions: why were key actors excluded from anti-trafficking coordination institutions in all three countries? And how effective can anti-trafficking policies and institutions be if they do not seek to engage with the relevant stakeholders involved in a trafficking situation?

The programme then sought to review working conditions from the perspectives of employers and workers, and the jurisprudence of disputes was also reviewed. Labour relations are characterized by highly asymmetrical power dynamics that favour employers over workers in both domestic work and garment work. In two of the destination countries, the law forbids migrant workers from both freedom of association and collective bargaining ­– two ILO fundamental principles. In the third destination country the laws allow it, however, in practice, it is difficult for female workers to associate given prevailing gender and identity stereotypes against migrant and working women.

None of the anti-trafficking policies in the three countries reference freedom of association and collective bargaining, which prevents women migrants from being recognized through unions or labour collectives and therefore voicing their challenges and demands. This raises another important question about anti-trafficking policies: how effective are they if they do not seek to influence the power dynamics that enable the abusive working relations of a trafficking situation to change?

In all three countries of origin there are three types of common interventions and policies:

  • Those meant to educate migrants about migrating usually referred to as “safe migration” initiatives or trafficking prevention policies;
  • Those seeking to prosecute labour recruiters especially the small-scale recruiters, often referred to as sub-agents. This focus on recruiters often goes together with policies and projects seeking to encourage formal recruiters that have committed to ethical and fair recruitment; and
  • Those protecting and supporting victims of trafficking.

None of the anti-trafficking policies and institutions in countries of origin acknowledged or addressed the issues underpinning the root causes that are leading to women migrating, such as an agrarian crisis, the lack of decent work or violence against women.

This raises a third and final question: how effective can anti-trafficking policies and institutions be in countries of origin if they do not recognize the policies that are driving distress migration in the first place?

While all questions that have been raised remain unanswered, one common feature stands out: anti-trafficking policies often fail to address the political economy of labour and migration. There are no easy and simple fixes for human trafficking and forced labour. To address these issues, rights-based laws, policies and practices that take into consideration local political economies are necessary. Only then can incremental and well-planned interventions expand decent work options.

Igor Bosc is Chief Technical Advisor, Work in Freedom Programme, ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia and Country Office for India.

The views expressed in this paper do not reflect the official views of the ILO or DFID. 

This article has been prepared by Igor Bosc as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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