Understanding root causes of human trafficking means understanding freedom

by Neil Howard

© private

Neil Howard is an academic – holding a Dphil and Mphil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford, and an activist based at the University of Antwerp. His research examines exploitative and unfree labour and political efforts to tackle it. He is the founding editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery at openDemocracy.net and a basic income advocate. His latest book is Child trafficking, Youth Labour Mobility and the Politics of Protection (2016).

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.


© Brian Auer/flickr.com

So, if we say that poverty is a root cause of people being un-free, it’s only because we see the poor as being ‘pushed’ into situations of un-freedom by the fact that they lack the alternative to do otherwise. And what that means is this: inside the story that ‘poverty is a root cause of trafficking, slavery or forced labour’ lies a different, much more powerful, and potentially liberatory theory of freedom. That theory can be articulated as follows: freedom as the power to say no.
Think about that for a minute. It means that freedom involves not just avoiding external interference from some ‘baddie’; it also involves having the ability and the capability to say no to that interference, exploitation or coercion. It thus means having control over resources, and it means having an exit option. This has massive implications.
When we say that poverty is a root cause of things like human trafficking, we acknowledge that people’s freedom from being trafficked by a trafficker will be violated because they lack an exit option, because they’re too poor to say no to this trafficker. We therefore place the violation of a person’s freedom to say no as the underlying cause of the subsequent violation of her freedom that is coercion on the part of the trafficker.
This obliges us to shift how we conceive of coercion and vulnerability. Because on this understanding, coercion has to be viewed as a structural and not simply individual phenomenon. For example, if me forcing you to work for me relies on you not being able to say no to me, and if you can’t say no because the organisation of our society means that you don't have the money to do so, then the real root cause of you being trafficked by me is the social creation of your poverty. Likewise, your being ‘vulnerable to trafficking or slavery’ means you inhabiting a position within the social world that structurally limits your available alternatives to being trafficked.
And what does all this mean? Ironically, it’s very simple. Firstly, once we confront the full implications of the idea that poverty is a root cause of trafficking or forced labour and we therefore accept that we implicitly endorse an idea of freedom that is wider than not being in chains but includes also the power to say no to those chains, then we have to accept that any structural force which limits our freedom to say no must be also considered a ‘root cause’. What things might this include? Four are critical.
1. ‘Poverty’. The fact of not having enough money. Which, crucially, is always relational. A person is not poor because they are fundamentally poor. They are poor because the social distribution of wealth is such that some people have lots of money while others have none. Being poor limits your freedom to resist exploitation because you lack a superior alternative to it.


© Brian Auer/flickr.com

2. Migration regimes. If someone is running away from an attacker and comes to your door for protection but you don’t open it, are you not also guilty for what happens to him? At the very least you have contributed to the lack of freedom he had to run away. Similarly, putting walls up around our borders and excluding migrants from working opportunities or social protection once inside our borders also limits that freedom. To that extent, it pushes people into exploitative or unfree work.
3. Discrimination. Racism, sexism, nationalism. These social forms of discrimination are not individual and they are not banal. They ultimately categorise and divide into which of us is more or less human, who is ‘worth’ more or less. This is important because it also determines who can (and will) be more exploited, whose freedom to say no will be limited – it is no coincidence that the ranks of the exploited and unfree are overwhelmingly the socially discriminated against.
4. Finally, labour protection. In the absence of strong labour rights and powerful labour inspectorates to protect you, you are necessarily more vulnerable to those who would exploit you – you have less support in actualising your freedom as the power to say no. And thus you have more chance of ending up in exploitative or unfree work.
These structural limitations on ‘real freedom’ are all political and all structural. None of them arises by chance and none of them is an accident. As such, we can and must say loudly and clearly that people are not trafficked nor are they victims of forced labour because some nasty trafficker wants to exploit them. They are in these and other similarly grim situations because of the social and political inequalities and injustices that deny them freedom as the power to say NO to those who would exploit them (15 September 2017).