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The blind spot of efforts to tackle human trafficking

International Labour Organization, Global, 30 July 2015 - Every time the clarions of war are heard about fighting human trafficking, policy efforts tend to focus on addressing the alleged naivety of those who are trafficked and prosecuting the pimps or middlemen who recruit people for work. As the prevailing logic goes, migrants should know better and recruiters should be put on a tight leash. Rarely much is done about addressing issues at the demand end – where people work.

First of all, the prevailing logic of most policy efforts tends to be flawed – people often decide to migrate as a coping strategy to escape poverty, violence or other forms of distress. Migration represents an opportunity to break out of such situations. Middlemen, however questionable their tactics, are the very ones who lend a hand to those in distress to leave difficult situations sometimes for the worse, but most often for the better.

Faulting migrants and their recruiters for human trafficking not only misses on the social and economic dynamics of labour markets, but also leads to the wrong policies such as costly supply-driven information campaigns that are oblivious to migrants’ motivations or stringent recruitment regulations that drive recruitment of migrant workers underground.

What is often missing are solutions to recognize and improve living and working conditions of migrant workers who tend to fall into situations of human trafficking. What about the wages, working hours, leave, compensations and other rights of domestic or garment workers? Many studies have shown the need to strengthen labour protections. One of the latest ones by the International Labour Organization (ILO) sheds light on the working conditions of Indian domestic workers at home and abroad.

Why is it that we forget about the labour dimension of human trafficking? Understanding this blind spot may help us in finding more effective solutions. At least three reasons come to mind:

  1. It is easier for law enforcement actors to prosecute middlemen or fault the migrants rather than prosecuting abusive employers who have connections and political leverage. Human trafficking convictions are notoriously rare compared with convictions for other crimes.
  2. It is easier for aid workers or local employment offices to provide information to migrants about safe migration than connecting job-seekers to good employers.
  3. Labour protections require effective labour market governance, legislative or procedural reforms that are politically harder to push through.

Ultimately, the blind spot of efforts to tackle human trafficking is more about our own social preferences. Are middle class employers of domestic workers ready to sign contracts granting labour protections to domestic workers? Are factory owners ready to improve living and working conditions of garment workers?

The ILO and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are implementing a unique Work in Freedom Programme with the support of the Government of the United Kingdom that shows that it is possible to tackle the labour dimensions of human trafficking in countries like Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Lebanon and Nepal. The Programme aims to enhance the agency of migrants and improve recruitment and labour migration policies; it focuses on the domestic work and garment sectors – the most prevalent areas of trafficking.


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