Contract Substitution: A Means of Enslaving the Most Vulnerable

 

From hastily checking off the terms and conditions agreement on Itunes to eagerly signing our names on Amazon Prime membership renewals, many of us live in a world in which impatience is our greatest discomfort. Many of us have the freedom to be inattentive when signing our names to binding agreements. However, not everyone can afford to be so trusting with the agreements they sign. For some people, signing their name on a document could be the very thing leading them into their bondage or “voluntary” servitude.

The people most inflicted by this form of “voluntary” slavery are migrants from third world countries who seek jobs that are seemingly better than what is offered in their home countries. These migrants are lured into the hands of employment recruiters through the false promise of lucrative wealth and lavish job opportunities. These employment recruiters, known as labor brokers, seldom give the migrants the actual jobs they promised them. A situation of hope quickly turns into darkness and desolation when the terms of the original agreement signed by the laborer infringes on his or her basic rights.

Contract substitution, the process of overriding a contract and replacing it with a harsher, “substituted” one, is a dominant practice in nearly 161 countries. That is, more than 2.4 million victims of forced labor have been trafficked across the world market due to practices like contract substitution. This “substituted” contract is a mechanism by which job recruiters coerce laborers into working under harsh conditions; conditions that exponentially differ from the ones they had originally consented to.


Contract substitution, the process of overriding a contract and replacing it with a harsher, “substituted” one, is a dominant practice in nearly 161 countries.


Essentially, job recruiters meet with prospective workers, who wish to travel to a new country for better job prospects. When the recruiters initially meet with their clients, the terms of the agreement are set, terms which delineate the job type, location, salary, and conditions of the given work. However, once the job is secured and the migrants arrive at their destination country, they are subjected to a new contract with considerably different conditions. Left with no other job choices and an onerous recruitment fee to pay back, these workers are often compelled to sign this new contract.

 Photo: Zeyad Al-Jehany

Photo: Zeyad Al-Jehany

For instance, when Puneeth and Damodar traveled to Saudi Arabia under the guarantee of becoming car painters, they were instead forced to work under gruelling conditions as shepherds. These shepherds are routinely deprived of basic necessities such as fresh drinking water and safe shelter. In fact, Togeti Anantagiri, a migrant whose situation closely parallels that of Puneeth and Damodar, recounted how he was forced to drink water from animal feeds upon arrival to his job.

After arriving at a new country and signing a binding agreement to work under a specific employer, many migrants are stripped of their personal belongings and passports. These migrants work excessively long hours under the threat of physical abuse, arrest, confiscation of their belongings, and the withholding of their wages. They are trapped in their jobs because they have nowhere else to turn; and the substituted contract they signed binds them to their dreadful work positions.

Moreover, a project funded by the European Union on Labor Migration and Recruitment concluded that “migrant workers are often ready and willing to accept substandard conditions in their efforts to quickly secure work abroad. The demand for jobs is extremely high, and workers compete against one another for choice positions abroad.” Hence, the plight of migrant workers is a result of a growing social pressure to settle for available jobs, even if these jobs compromise their ability to work in respectable, humane environments.


A project funded by the European Union on Labor Migration and Recruitment concluded that “migrant workers are often ready and willing to accept substandard conditions in their efforts to quickly secure work abroad. The demand for jobs is extremely high, and workers compete against one another for choice positions abroad.


Employment recruiters understand this pressure and wield it to their advantage. Fueled by the desire to profit from cheap migrant labor, these recruiters exploit the workers they place in new, estranged environments. Specifically, the recruiters are taking advantage of the migrants’ language barrier, lack of education, and poor understanding of foreign law. Unaware of the labor rights afforded to them in a new country, these migrants are extremely susceptible targets to a predator who thrives on the ignorance and naivety of its victims.

This predator, the notorious employment recruiter, is able to continue with this unethical practice due to a lack of coherency in the global fight against contract substitution. In fact, a policy brief from the European Union states, “The relative impunity with which recruitment agencies have been operating for the last few decades had led to the entrenchment of illegal practices that benefit recruiters and result in significant rights violations for migrant workers.

Where there is less accountability, there is a greater flourishing of human rights abuse. Accordingly, contract substitution is most likely to occur in areas replete with private, for-profit recruitment agencies that are lacking in government oversight. Although many countries have laws in place to fight against contract substitution, these laws struggle to be effectual in the midst of recruitment agencies who perform via covert, underground means.

However, improvements are divulging in both the public and private sphere. More countries are starting to require “standard contracts,” for all incoming labor migrants. Such contracts force recruiting companies to agree to minimum wages, time off, and basic work necessities for their clients. These unchangeable, “standard” contracts subsequently make the recruiting companies accountable for any infringements or transgressions they commit.


More countries are starting to require “standard contracts,” for all incoming labor migrants. Such contracts force recruiting companies to agree to minimum wages, time off, and basic work necessities for their clients.


In addition to such improvements, Luis CdeBaca, a former worker in the U.S. State Department, is inventing technology that will allow for countries to screen contracts through a blockchain database. This blockchain database will match signed contracts with those originally given to clients. Only then, after a match has been made, will the country issue a work visa to the incoming migrant. This process helps ensure that the migrants are not entering the country under false pretenses. The birth of this technology signifies a monumental step towards the prioritization of worker rights, which have often been slighted in the booming age of globalization and technology.

Where there is a demand for labor, there is a risk that contract substitution may snare vulnerable migrants in a trap of perpetual bondage. This perpetual bondage, however, is regarded as “voluntary” due to the client’s signature on his or her new, substituted contact. The following question remains: can someone consent to work in an environment whose conditions are obscured by manipulative, reworded language? The aforementioned examples of progress, new technology and government initiatives, indicate a growing intolerance for such unethical practice. Perhaps society is beginning to recognize the difference between “voluntary” consent and “coerced” manipulation.  


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About the Author

Sarah Beech.png

Sarah Beech is a Junior at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying psychology and government. She is most passionate about fighting against the various human rights abuses that occur around us. In her free time she likes to watch Netflix, hang out with her friends, and try new restaurants. Her favorite quote is, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" (from A Cinderella Story).