Within the policy world, we often hear that problems like trafficking or forced labour have ‘root causes’ and that the most important of them is ‘poverty’. People are victims of forced labour, we say, they are ‘un-free’, basically because they’re poor. And at face value, that makes some sense – trafficking is bad, forced labour is bad, and given that poverty is also bad it is intuitive that it might lead to such bad things.
But the thing is, it’s not that simple. Something in this story doesn't quite fit. Why? Well, the mainstream theory of freedom that underpins most legal structures and all international law around crimes like trafficking and forced labour, is what we can call negative freedom – that is, freedom from. I am free to the extent that you can’t interfere with me. You are unfree to the extent that I do interfere with you. And ultimately, someone is a victim of trafficking or forced labour to the extent that someone else interferes with what they’re able to do to the extent that they constrain them to do what they want.
But the issue is that this simply doesn’t square with the idea of poverty as a root cause. A root cause is the fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem. It’s the underlying, original source of action, that sets in motion a chain of other actions leading to an event. But poverty is just an abstract concept. It’s not a thing – like you or me – who can force one another to do anything. It’s just a word we use to describe to the fact of having basically nothing.