Thinking the Global Rise of Forced Labor: Old, New, and Changing Forms of Labor Exploitation in Times of Crisis
Marianne Braig, Léa Renard, Nicola Schalkowski, Theresa Wobbe
The current hygienic and economic crisis affects work relationships and organization in various ways. The virus not only prompted us to identify “systemically relevant jobs”, but also brings to light the diverse divisions of labor (gender, ethnicity, color, migration status, disability, etc.) – including forms of forced and exploitative labor. What does the current situation reveal about contemporary forms of labor exploitation – before, during, and after the crisis?
Forced labor as a social and economic phenomenon is very old – think of the forms of slavery in Classical Antiquity – but it also took new shapes in the present and will likely do so in the future. Many authors have argued that forced labor has increased after 1990 and that this growth is closely linked to increasing mass migration on a global scale. Therefore, we can only hope that the current crisis will heighten our sensitivity in two ways: first, concerning the relation between migration, working, and living conditions; and second, concerning forms of labor that do not fit in the presumably universalistic concept of free capitalist labor. The current situation challenges a binary conception of coercion versus voluntariness and thereby reveals the many shades between these two poles.
Forced labor in its various forms is embedded in global production chains connecting North and South. Workers who – due to multiple forms of structural discrimination – belong to marginalized groups and who are already facing exploitative working conditions are now, in consequence of the crisis, more vulnerable to finding themselves in situations of forced labor. Among them are children – as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states when highlighting the risk for girls to be “burdened by increased domestic chores and caring responsibilities” (ILO 2020). Moreover, migrant workers and day laborers, many of them working in various service areas, are threatened by the lockdown and the restrictions on mobility. In Germany, the latest corona hotspots provide insight into the working and living conditions of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria in slaughterhouses.
As a result of the crisis, forms of work in the low-wage sector that have long been invisibilized come to light for a wider public. Gender patterns of migration indicate an international division of labor for social reproduction among women of different social classes (Mezzadri 2020). In Western European countries, care work for the elderly and children, as well as nursing in the medical sector, is primarily performed by women from Eastern Europe, who often work around the clock under precarious, highly dependent conditions, mediated by agencies. In Latin America, during the lockdowns and movement restrictions, migrant domestic workers who crossed national borders or migrated from rural areas to urban centers to perform informal labor in private households are either faced with losing their employment – and therefore their residence permit – or are coerced to stay with their employers without payment, working without limits (López Mourelo 2020). In Peru, the ILO and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are developing initiatives to raise awareness of the increased risk of forced labor and human trafficking, with an emphasis on trafficking for sexual exploitation, due to the pandemic (OIT Oficina Andina 2020; OIM Perú 2020). In Brazil, another focus area for the ILO with regard to the elimination of forced labor, illegal activities known to include coerced labor, such as lumbering and mining, are increasing in the Amazon area due to the lack of protection by authorities during the COVID-19 crisis (Kaspar 2020). Indigenous people, who historically have been and still are at an increased risk of forced labor, are now additionally vulnerable to the virus for lack of access to health care.
As we can see, the large population of informal workers in Latin America and around the world is now often faced with the “choice” between starvation and contagion. The lines between different forms of work relations become blurred, and transitions from formal employment to informal work and to forms of forced labor seem to be fluid. As researchers, we ought to pay attention to shifting terms as well as continuities in categorizations concerning work relations – e.g. forced labor – during this specific historic moment of a global crisis.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Marianne Braig (FU Berlin) is a political scientist and sociologist; Léa Renard (member of the “Working Futures” Network & FU Berlin), Nicola Schalkowski (FU Berlin), and Theresa Wobbe (Potsdam) are sociologists. They are researchers in the project “Forced labour as a shifting global category: classification, comparison and meanings of work in the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1919 – 2017”, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.