Human trafficking

Fight human trafficking: how labour rights hold the key

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 8:01am

Today is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. A day to reflect on the effectiveness of our counter-trafficking efforts. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, mostly on investigation and criminal prosecution, rescuing raids, training and raising awareness. Yet, all reports show that we fail to reduce the number or severity of abuses.

There has been an increased focus on the role of businesses. Against the backdrop of a worldwide pursuit of ever-cheaper labour and reduced regulation, responsible business was anticipated to be a force for change.

Drawing upon the sensationalism of “modern slavery”, calls for expanded auditing of supply chains and for corporate disclosures on sourcing have proliferated. However, these voluntary initiatives have not brought substantive improvement, avoiding the changes to business models that could make a real difference – such as paying workers a living wage or expanding social protection.

Addressing trafficking more effectively requires a clearer understanding of the underlying issues. Human trafficking is not the handiwork of a few criminals who have managed to avoid prosecution. It is a systemic problem, with roots in the violation of labour rights: unsafe workplaces, excessive working hours, lack of overtime pay, wage theft, lack of freedom of association, and so on.

Justice demands criminal prosecution of those who profit from trafficking, but this response has proved insufficient to reduce the problem. Change must occur at a more fundamental level.

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A greater focus on protection of labour rights and ensuring decent working conditions is needed to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking. This means bringing those employed precariously in domestic work, agriculture, fishing, entertainment and other informal work under the full protection of labour laws.

It means tackling discriminatory treatment, particularly for women and migrant workers, extending social protection schemes, broadening the mandate and resources of labour inspectorates, facilitating access to complaint mechanisms and guaranteeing freedom of association.

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In 2014, all International Labour Organisation member states adopted a new international standard against forced labour. It emphasises the link between forced labour and trafficking in persons and establishes the obligations on three main levels: protection, prevention and compensation.

The tools are here to combat human trafficking effectively and uphold our commitment, the question is whether we have the courage to make use of them.

Tomoko Nishimoto, regional director, International Labour Organisation in Asia and the Pacific