Is There a Difference Between Low-Wage Work and Labor Trafficking
As an undecided undergraduate student I was thrilled that my schedule allowed me to squeeze in an Intro to Global Studies course. I had been plowing through pre-reqs left and right while meeting with academic advisors, career counselors, and professionals in a variety of fields to try and discern what I might want to do with my life (spoiler alert: I still have no idea), but I knew when I saw the syllabus for this course I had to make it fit. The best part? There was an entire unit on human trafficking! I couldn’t wait.
I’m far from an expert on the industry, so I enjoyed all of the readings and discussions we had. The unit started with a focus on sex slavery before shifting into labor trafficking. I quickly found myself in a debate I never expected: Are sweatshops always bad? Sweatshops had always been presented to me as abusive, low-wage environments that exploited their workers. This was the first time that they were portrayed as a saving grace for areas with large numbers of people seeking employment: “Isn’t some job better than no job? Who are we to discourage exporting labor when it can provide an income for a family in need?”
I was shocked when I was presented with the arguments that showed the positive influence low-income work has on families. When we fight to shut down factories/farms etc. that are known for following relaxed labor laws, we are threatening to leave many people without any pay. Yes their wages might be lower than what most of us would expect, and they might work a many more hours a week than us, but economic systems vary drastically from country to country. At what point are we just imposing our ideals on other countries and discouraging their culture and independence?
While the “pro-sweatshop” argument has some good points, it does not take the whole issue of labor trafficking into account.
While the “pro-sweatshop” argument has some good points, it does not take the whole issue of labor trafficking into account. Often seen in farming, sewing, and brick making industries (among many others), labor trafficking affects people of all ages across the globe. Unlivable wages are not the sole component of labor trafficking as the pro-sweatshop argument made it seem. There are unfortunately high numbers of cases including false recruitment, debt bondage, physical punishment, physically locking workers in and more. All of these break the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are therefore inhumane regardless of culture/country/amount of wealth a family has. There have been many movements that try and call out big companies to be more transparent in who makes their products, which is very important, but we also need to hold other countries accountable to just labor laws and practices. Rather than discouraging companies to hire workers outside of their country of origin, we should be advocating that all countries make just labor laws a priority that are regularly enforced.
Rather than discouraging companies to hire workers outside of their country of origin, we should be advocating that all countries make just labor laws a priority that are regularly enforced.
While this might seem uncalled for if you were like me and grew up being forced to take breaks and not being allowed to work more than 40 hours a week, others are not so fortunate. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to labor trafficking as oftentimes they are relying on their recruiters to provide employment, lodging, transportation and food. Oftentimes, they find that they have responded to false advertising, and they might be working a completely different job than they expected (a common mask for sex trafficking), completely different hours and at a different pay rate than expected. Stories of people moving across their country, or even internationally, to pursue a promising job are numerous, but unfortunately so are the stories of these jobs not being what they were promised to be.
Another common component specific to migrant workers is the commonality for their recruiter to confiscate their legal documents so that they are essentially undocumented. This leaves them trapped because finding work or trying to move back home without papers is daunting. This can also be partnered with debt bondage, which is not reserved only for migrant workers. When employers charge their workers absurd fees for things like lodging, food and travel expenses (in cases of migrant workers) with high interest rates, workers are left in debt to their bosses. These fees imposed on them are far greater than the original costs of the expenses (when expenses exist). Sometimes employers will even charge workers a fee to get their legal documents back, which were stolen in the first place. In cases of debt bondage, workers are stuck trying to earn enough to pay off debts that are impossible to cover because they are continuously growing past their rate of income.
Another common component specific to migrant workers is the commonality for their recruiter to confiscate their legal documents so that they are essentially undocumented. This leaves them trapped because finding work or trying to move back home without papers is daunting.
Beyond the legally and financially manipulative tactics labor traffickers use, there are also, unfortunately, physical marks of labor slavery as well. These include, but are not limited to physically locking workers in factories or forcing them to stay in the field for 10-plus hours a day, physically reprimanding them, exposing them to dangerous machines or too much sun without protection and/or even toxic chemicals. Not only does this impede the safety of adult workers, but children are also often negatively affected by these conditions as well. Many families find themselves stuck in labor trafficking as a unit, meaning their youth are being abused in every way the adults are including long hours and unsafe environments. When they should be in school, many kids are trapped at work, either through physical restrainment or financial burdens imposed on their families.
While we often use “sweatshop” and “low-wage work” interchangeably, it is important to look at the conditions workers truly experience. Many times, there are very few labor laws being enforced, and labor traffickers know how to capitalize on this. The environments outlined here completely disregard the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore require intervention. We need to hold countries accountable to fair employment opportunities, we need to hold companies accountable to transparent practices, and we need to be more conscious as consumers about where we shop. Labor trafficking is a fixable issue, but we need to start by being informed and recognizing that it is more than low-wage work and therefore does require intervention.
This year, do something different. Take on the Dressember style challenge and pledge to wear a dress or tie every day in December. You'll challenge yourself, learn more about the issue of human trafficking and have a viable impact on those trapped in slavery around the world.
Registration opens October 1st, 2018
About the Author
Ali Pollard is a winter gal at heart who loves trying new things and traveling to new places. When she's not finishing her homework or consuming absurd amounts of coffee, she loves skiing and playing the saxophone. Ali is hoping to turn her passion for human rights into a career as she studies the sociology of law, criminology, and deviance (yes, that's all one major!) and political science at the University of Minnesota.