'Modern slavery': why is unfree labour so persitent? by Jan Lucassen
Ever since 2020, human rights organisations have been raising alarm about the abominable labour conditions and disenfranchisement of migrant workers involved in the construction of stadiums and other infrastructural works in Qatar in connection with the World Cup starting on 20 November of this year. This extreme form of restricting the freedom of workers (often referred to as 'modern slavery') is a persistent phenomenon. But to understand why – despite the formal abolition of slavery globally – all sorts and degrees of unfree labour remain so persistent, we need to go further back in time, because only through a historical perspective can we understand why many people and parties – and not just greedy employers – have strong interests in the perpetuation of unfree labour.
Until 1800, slavery occurred almost everywhere in the world, with the exception of Western Europe, although even there many groups of workers were subject to severe restrictions of freedom. Moreover, European countries benefited widely from slavery and other forms of unfree labour in their colonies. From the nineteenth century, however, slavery was abolished worldwide, at least formally.
In 1926, for example, the League of Nations-initiated anti-slavery convention instructed states to stop recognising the property rights of one person over another, while the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) stipulated that such agreements should also be put into practice.
Slavery, meaning that one person can own another and make him do anything he likes, was a system of unfreedom recognised and protected by law. But that does not mean that all other forms of dependent or wage labour are free. There are many intermediate forms of restriction of freedom, referred to here as unfree labour. To understand why, despite the abolition of slavery, all kinds of forms of unfree labour are still so widespread, we need to realise that different parties have varied interests in this: states, employers, as well as the free and even the unfree worker.
Despite all the fine promises, all kinds of states regularly evade the aforementioned international treaties. In the recent past, think of the Soviet Union under Stalin, Germany under Hitler, Japan in the 1930s and during World War II, China under Mao, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, present-day North Korea, and China with its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. But states can also be less ostentatious, for instance by severely restricting the rights of migrant workers. We see this, for instance, in the Gulf states, such as Qatar, where the Kafala system ties guest workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India to employers to such an extent that they are completely dependent, virtually disenfranchised, and have no civil rights. Finally, unfree labour also occurs in the form or forced prison work at ultra-low wages. This has long been happening in the United States, China and North Korea, benefiting both the state and private companies.
But, as an article in NRC of 19 October shows, in western countries where combating exploitation is well regulated on paper, law enforcement remains a crucial problem. Investigation agencies, such as the labour inspectorate in the Netherlands, and the judiciary hardly take extreme exploitation seriously.
However economically attractive it may seem, it is not the case that every employer, given the chance, would prefer forced labour. Often, unfree labour hardly promotes motivation, and productivity is correspondingly low. Minimal pay and minimal autonomy in work generally also produce minimal performance. Moreover, employers may also be opposed to unfree labour because it distorts competition, as in the case of mass production by prisoners in the service of the state. On the other hand, employers may well also benefit from prisoners, as German business did in the concentration camps, and Western companies often still do in the case of forced labour in Xinjiang or US prison labour.
That all kinds of coercion and exploitation are still widespread is because many employers shirk their responsibilities, helped by the greatly expanded system of subcontracting since the 1980s, which quickly blurs who is responsible for decent working conditions. Because of this, even well-intentioned states (and trade unions) struggle to enforce effective implementation of existing laws and regulations regarding rights and working conditions.
The unfree worker
The unfree worker could protest against his or her unfree existence, but did not always feel the need. Especially amongst those had become enslaved long ago or were born into slavery, rationally weighing up the pros and cons could sometimes result in a sense of resignation and even a fear of change. Indeed, besides the obvious disadvantages – the impossibility of deciding one's own fate, the usually existing total lack of respect, and often the exposure to forms of coercion, violence and mistreatment – for some there could also be advantages to being in an unfree but permanent employment relationship, including forms of self-sufficiency, access to loans and other benefits. While enslaved people could not change employers, they could try to build a good relationship with their owner to make existence more bearable. Some slave systems also featured the possibility of manumission, whether for payment or not, and, with that in mind, slaves often chose resignation.
As FNV Mondiaal's report shows, even in the present era workers may still consciously accept forms of unfreedom – assuming it is a temporary concession – in the hope of improving their situation. This is the modern version of ‘voluntarily’ entering into unfree labour that, historically, we find to be widespread in extreme situations of impoverishment. The form of contract labour as is now rampant in Qatar is a glaring example of this, as is also reported in excellent articles in Trouw of 15 October and NRC of 28 October. By doing nothing against rogue and illegal recruiters at the local and national levels, Qatar and the contract workers' countries of origin bear responsibility for this, but, indirectly, so do all those countries that just cheerfully participate in the World Cup while letting economic interests take precedence over human rights. But even the worker himself plays a role, by more or less voluntarily pursuing an unrealistic dream, as does his family in counting on the golden rewards promised by the recruiters. For that reason alone, this hapless worker dares not protest against exploitation and return or even phone home before he can return with those mountains of gold, which he unfortunately never achieves. The result is a broken worker who – if he or she even survives – ends up returning home with sky-high debts, contracted for the services of their recruiters.
The free worker
Even the free worker could but by no means always had to protest against the existence of unfree labour. Apart from moral indignation, protests stemmed mainly from the fear of unfair competition. In the nineteenth century, that was the English labour movement’s main motive for joining the abolitionist’s cause in the Atlantic region.
In many cases, however, free and unfree labour existed and still exist side by side and the free worker can benefit from the difference in status, even guard it emphatically. This dilemma of inclusion and exclusion – even where slavery no longer exists formally but where there are significant differences in rights and working conditions depending on ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics – is a common thread in the history of the trade union movement.
In short, unfree labour is a persistent phenomenon even after the worldwide abolition of slavery, and the fight against 'modern slavery' in all its forms cannot be fought hard enough. But in doing so, many different parties need to be addressed. And we cannot lump together various forms of unfreedom with regard to labour and working conditions, and different unfree conditions require different solutions. For this reason alone, we must take care to explicitly involve not only governments, employers and trade unions, but also the workers concerned in this struggle. In any case, the looking away and denying any co-responsibility by indirectly involved organisations, such as football federations in the case of Qatar, does not help.
See also: Jan Lucassen, The world at work (Zwolle, WBOOKS 2021), pp. 301-318, and the video recording of the debate evening 'Labour under pressure' organised at the IISH on 14 October 2021.