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Between ‘modern slavery’ and ‘decent work’ – framing labour exploitation

Maayan Niezna and Natalie Sedacca blog on considerations around frameworks of modern slavery and decent work to addressing labour exploitation.

Published: 29th August 2023

What is the meaning - for legal standards, policy, and law enforcement - of using different conceptual frameworks to address labour exploitation? More specifically, how does the negative framing of ‘modern slavery’ compare with the positive framing of ‘decent work’?

The framework of modern slavery, as well as the broader term ‘labour exploitation’, emphasise the extreme forms of exploitation that society aims to abolish. While the framing of ‘labour exploitation’ usually reflects an understanding of a continuum of exploitation, the ‘modern slavery’ framework often distinguishes between the most severe forms of exploitation – slavery, servitude and forced labour - that are or should be criminalised, and lesser violations of labour laws, such as long hours and below minimum wage, that should be addressed by different interventions.

The positive framing of 'decent work' on the other hand is informed by ideals of how work, and perhaps society, should look. Decent work as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) is aspirational, and refers to employment opportunities, adequate earnings and productive work, decent working time, combining work with family and personal life, stability and security of work, equal opportunities, safe work environment, social security and social dialogue. In this post we include highlights and insights from two related events: an ILO conference taking place in Geneva, and a workshop taking place at the University of Oxford.

Natalie Sedacca: ILO Regulating for Decent Work Conference

The 8th Regulating for Decent Work Conference, ‘Ensuring decent work in times of uncertainty’ took place at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva from 10 to 12 July 2023. While the impacts of the Covid pandemic continue to reverberate around the world, heightened challenges to decent work include the invasion of Ukraine and other conflicts, the cost-of living-crisis, ongoing climate breakdown, and extreme inequality. The conference examined responses and solutions under four tracks: macroeconomic policies, trade and global value changes, the role of institutions in ensuring decent work, and regulatory innovation.

The opening included a powerful keynote from Human Resource and International and Comparative Labour expert Rosemary Batt, which led to a key learning point on the need to regulate financial as well as labour markets to ensure decent work. After this, the conference featured a rich programme of panels. Some focused on sectors such as care, domestic, agricultural and sex work that are often outside the remit of labour protection. Thus, a session on the regulatory challenges in agricultural value chains examined how gender and race shape labour exploitation.

Other sessions considered other precarious situations that receive little attention, such as those of apprentices and online content creators. Thematic sessions considered the rights of young workers, migrant workers, and those in the platform economy, and the challenge of forced labour and other violations of workers’ rights, such as sexual harassment. Panels on innovative solutions included discussion of participatory training to build workers’ power and fill enforcement gaps in US sectors including domestic work and nail salons.

I participated in a session on domestic workers, which saw insightful discussions across a range of disciplinary and geographic areas, particularly the Americas and Europe. Issues considered in this and linked panels included the challenges of legal reform and implementation in this often-excluded sector, the role of trade unions and other civil society actors in progressing domestic workers’ rights, and the situation of domestic workers on digital platforms.

The implications of the platform economy for formalisation of domestic work is one of the points I examined in my paper, where I compare the position in South Africa, the UK, Chile, and India, also referring to relevant labour standards, the role of ILO Convention 189 on the rights of domestic workers, and the impact of the pandemic. A key learning point here was the wide variety of relationships with an intermediary seen in platform domestic work, which do not necessarily manifest the same levels of control seen in sectors like ride-hailing. This adds urgency to the call made by Fredman and colleagues for rights to be extended to platform workers regardless of their employment status, to ensure that even those who may be genuinely self-employed have access to decent conditions and an entitlement to collective bargaining.

Maayan Niezna: Between ‘Modern Slavery’ and ‘Decent Work’ event, Bonavero Institute

On 17 January 2023 the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford organised a workshop to consider different framings and responses to labour exploitation – the negative framing of ‘modern slavery’ compared with the positive framing of ‘decent work’. This was a part of the Bonavero Institute’s Modern Slavery PEC-related work on human rights as they relate to modern slavery A recording of the workshop is available here. A summary of the discussion is available here.

This workshop was meant to encourage a conversation regarding the framing of labour exploitation and its significance. As an early discussion of these issues, it raised existing concerns and insights, but also various open questions. Of these, several common themes and questions from the different contributions to the workshop are particularly noteworthy:

Language matters. The terminology introduced or discussed included labour exploitation, modern slavery, unacceptable forms of work, and decent work. The language we use, as scholars and practitioners, matters for whether we prioritise labour law, public law, or criminal law interventions. I suggest that the language used should start from the framing of the issue and move to the intervention. However, when focusing on specific intervention, the appropriate language can follow the practical focus.

Structural factors noted by the speakers include migration and employment policies, and visa regimes. A key question on structural factors is whether the state is merely failing to address instances of modern slavery, or, as growing literature suggests, is involved in perpetrating exploitation.

The continuum of exploitation was recognised by different speakers as important framing for the phenomena of labour exploitation – as the continuum of unacceptable forms of work, between decent work and severe labour exploitation. Nonetheless, concerns were raised that the framing of labour exploitation or modern slavery as a continuum might lose the focus and strong condemnation power of the ‘modern slavery’ label. The continuum of exploitation therefore raises practical questions regarding the best ways to use it, and whether it can allow different forms of intervention.

Identifying appropriate indicators and using them to assess situations of labour exploitation and violations of workers’ rights were raised by several speakers. The use of indicators is related to the notion of a continuum, in identifying different elements of labour exploitation (or unacceptable forms of work), and recognising the violation of labour rights is often a matter of degree that might change over time. Indicators may be easier to apply in practice than broad and vague terms such as ‘exploitation’ or ‘decent work’. Indicators similarly raise practical questions: should some hierarchy should be recognised between different indicators, attributing more importance to certain conditions or violations?

Different points from the participants raised the question of whether we can hope to see better progress in addressing modern slavery and labour exploitation in the near future. In the global context, the development of international frameworks was seen as potentially promising, although it does not yet match the pressures on global supply chains with the regulatory challenges they raise. Concerns were also raised regarding the UK’s withdrawal from a previous commitment to protecting the victims of modern slavery. This latter concern only increased following the further undermining of the MSA in the Illegal Migration Act.

Dr Maayan Niezna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Modern Slavery and Human Rights at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, at the University of Oxford. She is a Modern Slavery PEC Research Fellow, leading the University of Oxford’s work as part of the Modern Slavery PEC Consortium partner-led work strand. Follow her on Twitter at @M_Niezna.

Dr Natalie Sedacca is Assistant Professor in Employment Law at Durham Law School. Natalie’s research focuses on human rights and labour law, with a particular interest in domestic workers and other marginalised workers, and in issues of gender and migration. She is an academic co-investigator on a project examining risks of exploitation for migrant agricultural and care workers, funded by the AHRC via the PEC. Follow her on Twitter or Mastodon.

Image: Jopwell via Pexels