News / Asia

Q&A: When is a Slave a Slave?

FILE - One of the thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia who set sail on Thai fishing boats every day as slaves, forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death.
FILE - One of the thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia who set sail on Thai fishing boats every day as slaves, forced to work in brutal conditions under threat of death.
Frances Alonzo
Of the estimated 21 million people in forced labor, slavery or victimized by trafficking, 11 million of those victims are in Asia, according to the International Labor Organization. But there’s been a debate for quite some time as to who is considered a slave and under what circumstances. When is a slave a slave?
Beate Andrees, the head of the special action program to combat forced labor at the International Labor Organization, explained to VOA’s Frances Alonzo the current definition of slavery, adopted by the International Slavery Convention in 1926, how slavery differs from forced labor and why it’s important to make the distinction.
ANDREES:  Slavery is defined as a situation where a person keeps control or ownership over another person. In other words, you need to have an element of coercion and control in a situation of slavery. And that is very similar to the forced labor definition adopted by the ILO (International Labor Organization) in 1930, which also emphasized the element of coercion. Not every situation where a worker does not receive a fair wage or where a worker has to work long hours is automatically a situation of forced labor. We have to look for this element of coercion and control.

ALONZO:  Could you go in depth about why a clear definition is necessary?
ANDREES:  One concern is clearly related to the whole problem of measurement. If you don’t have universal and agreed definition, we will measure different things. The way we define something is how we design policies. So, it has a very practical implication for workers, in particular for victims, whether they’re considered slaves or traffic victims or forced labor victims or not, because the systems of protection that we have now in place are largely related to the new international instrument on trafficking in persons. And many victims fall through the cracks of this definition. And there’s now an attempt within the ILO to look into new standards to make sure that all victims of forced labor, whether they have been trafficked or not, receive protection and compensation. The opposite is also true.  If we now extend the definition to forced labor or slavery, and we aim to cover all forms of exploitation, there’s a risk that the systems of protections that have been set up or are in the process of being set up, for slavery, for trafficking victims, get diluted, and that we do not target the assistance anymore to those who are really in need. And that is why we have the ILO conventions on all of these issues; wages, working hours, maternity protections, so on.  They provide a level playing field to ensure that people are in decent work and are not exploited.  It’s not an abstract debate. It actually matters to the people.  And yes, there’s a lot of action already undertaken to protect victims, to prevent forced labor and slavery, so we should not wait for further legal debate or clarification before we take action.
ALONZO: How does this affect what is happening with women and children in Asia?
ANDREES: According to ILO’s estimates of forced labor and slavery and trafficking, Asia is the region with the highest absolute number of victims. The estimate [is] that there are 21 million victims globally, and more than 11 million are in Asia. So, it’s clear that our focus has to be in Asia. You have entrenched systems of bonded labor in many countries of South Asia like Nepal, Pakistan, [and] India. You have across the continent trafficking networks that move people around through forced labor or sexual exploitation.
ALONZO: Are we asking the right questions?  Are these the types of questions that need to be asked?
ANDREES: By not asking these questions, I do believe that we will miss our target. Our interventions will not be measurable in the end of the day whether we do actually make progress or not. Because if you don’t clearly define the problem, you will not be able to measure it. We are just starting to understand the impact of our policies and what we do. I refer to the sector as a whole and not just the International Labor Organization. There’s very little research to actually demonstrate that specific interventions such as criminal justice approaches, or rescuing victims or prevention actually helps those who are at risk or those who are in a situation of forced labor. We do know that only a very small fraction of those in forced labor are ever identified and receive assistance. So the majority still go unnoticed and unseen. So it seems that our interventions still have a long way to go to have a measurable impact. And therefore we do need to ask the questions what works and what doesn’t, and why.

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