Modern slavery and the gendered paradoxes of labour unfreedom

26 July 2016

Alessandra Mezzadri - Lecturer in Development Studies, SOAS

Why labour unfreedom is a more useful category than modern slavery to challenge exploitative working relations at home and abroad

Since the financial crisis, the partial recovery of profitability of business has happened at the expenses of workers worldwide. In the UK, improvements in employment rates have been paralleled by a decline in real wages. Abroad, countries hosting global labour-intensive manufacturing hubs have witnessed a further intensification of harsh labour regimes.  In this scenario, unsurprisingly, industrial disasters and sweatshop scandals proliferated.

It is in this context that the term ‘modern slavery’ is increasingly being used in media and policy circles, where it is more or less loosely deployed to capture extreme exploitation in global supply chains. With reference to the garment industry, debates on ‘new’ slavery trace back to the 1990s, and intensified after the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster.  But to what extent is the term ‘modern slavery’ helpful, and which other categories of analysis could be used instead?  I have previously stressed elsewhere  the relevance of engaging with definitional debates; definitions always come with analytical and political implications.  Here, I argue that the term ‘modern slavery’ is limited in describing the reality of the modern global garment proletariat.  The term ‘labour unfreedom’, instead, is better equipped to capture this reality.  This said, we should adopt a far broader definition of ‘unfreedom’ than that generally suggested, and emphasise both the economic and the social aspects of labour oppression.  This is particularly important to capture the lived experience of labour subjugation of the millions of women garment workers who stitch our clothes.

While well-meaning, the debate on modern slavery shows several limitations. First, acritical reference to ‘slaves’ working in modern industries risks perpetuating imageries of developing regions as undifferentiated lands rich in cheap labour.  Instead, these areas have fairly distinct political and economic trajectories.  Acknowledging this is crucial to developing meaningful policy and political responses.  Second, the debate on modern slavery can be hijacked by reactionary forces, engaged in what Bridget Anderson calls ‘violent humanitarianism’. For instance, last year, the Italian Prime Minister invoked the fight against ‘slavery’ as an excuse to engage in extremely aggressive anti-immigration practices. Finally, the debate on modern slavery risks ‘exceptionalizing’ labour abuse in global industries, reducing it to an individual relation of domination perpetuated by a few culprits. It also risks narrowing our attention to extreme forms of exploitation, like forced or trafficked labour.  However, the ‘normalcy’ of exploitation in many global sectors should also concern us deeply as it is incompatible with progressive struggles in support of decent work.  Notably, the ILO, at their International Labour Conference 2016, addressed issues of forced and trafficked labour in the overall context of the governance of global supply chains.

In the garment sector, the limitations of the modern slavery debate manifest clearly. Events like Rana Plaza are wrongly turned into exceptional, one-off disasters with no connection to systemic labour abuse. Moreover, often the policy debate is reduced to the identification of the ‘real’ bad guys.  Can we really decide if H&M is worse than M&S or better than Primark?  The escalation of sweatshop scandals and so-called disasters in recent times has involved a great number of buyers and demonstrates the limitations of single culprit-based approaches.

Implicitly or explicitly, the debate on modern slavery intersects with that on ‘labour unfreedom’. However, unlike the former, the latter has not fallen into the trap of exceptionalizing given labour outcomes.  Given its roots in debates within the intellectual Left, the category ‘labour unfreedom’ is already understood as systemically linked to processes of exploitation and to the development of capitalism. However, as illustrated by Jens Lerche, it is a term which is also contested. Moreover, in my view, classic understandings of unfreedom have tended to be too heavily framed around ‘productivist’ understandings of exploitation. They have over-emphasised the economic facets of unfreedom, at the expenses of the non-economic, social ones.

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Indeed, for some workers, unfreedom mainly manifests as a brutal relation of economic subjugation. In India, there is ample evidence that many garment workers labour under permanent conditions of debt towards employers or recruiters. In line with what has been argued by Jan Breman, they can be classified as (neo)bonded workers. However, in many cases, debt-based subjugation is the outcome of prior social subordination, or even stigma.  Moreover, while debt clearly indicates patterns of unfreedom, lack of debt may not indicate freedom.  In fact, it may even indicate more pernicious forms of socio-economic exclusion.  Paradoxically, there may be trade-offs between economic and social forms of unfreedom.

This last point is particularly clear when analysing differences in payment systems imposed upon male and female garment workers. Let us take the case of garment workers engaged in embroidery activities in India.  Many are based in rural areas around the main urban export conglomerates, particularly in northern India.  Here, only male workers, considered highly skilled, are attached by contractors via debt relations. Therefore, they are your classic (neo)bonded, unfree labourforce.  However, they are hardly the worst-off in terms of take-home wages.  The worst-off are the women homeworkers in remote villages, systematically excluded from advance payments, and hence from debt-relations.  The contractor is uninterested in attaching them via debt, as they are already tied to the thick walls of the household.  They have very few economic alternatives and can be paid a pittance.  Also in urban settings, women homeworkers are paid less than a third than male counterparts. Paradoxically women’s freedom from debt is structured around ‘patriarchal unfreedom’.  Tellingly, even under the old indenture labour system women’s labouring oppression was mainly organized around patriarchy and sexualised abuse rather than debt, as narrated by Gaiutra Bahadur in her extraordinary book Coolie Woman.

Similarly, in factory settings it is impossible to understand the unfreedom experienced by women workers without accounting for patriarchal norms. The forms of ‘attachment’ women experience in the garment industry are always based on the asphyxiating legacy of gendered social norms.  While these may involve forms of economic unfreedom, like in the case of the infamous Sumangali scheme in southern India, they may even more often involve typologies of social unfreedom. It is in this light that sexual harassment, verbal abuse and other routine-based gendered forms of violence on the shopfloor should be considered.

Finally, understandings of unfreedom should be further complicated by engaging with the voices of workers – our unfreedom fighters. Tellingly, in India, male and female members of the same household – and who perform the same job – often have a completely different understanding of their freedom or unfreedom.  They confirm how ‘lived ‘unfreedom’’ is greatly gendered, with men more likely to interpret Azadi (freedom in Hindi) in terms of economic opportunities – a point also stressed by the Indian journalist Aman Sethi in his compelling book A Free Man – and women in terms of less stringent social norms and mobility outside the household.

Labour unfreedom is therefore a more useful category than modern slavery in capturing the exploitative relations at work in global industries like garments. However, as I have illustrated this term must necessarily be further unpacked to account for multiple forms of socio-economic oppression.  As austerity measures increasingly hit labouring classes also in Western economies, returning the sweatshop to our own backyard – in areas like Leicester in the UK or Prato in Italy – some of these lessons may become increasingly relevant to fight working poverty and unfreedom at home as well as abroad.

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