Labor Trafficking as the Modern-day Slave Trade

, by Foreign Policy in Focus , BELLO Walden

Keynote speech at World Social Forum on Labor Migration, Miriam College, Quezon City, Philippines, Nov 26, 2012

I would like, first of all, to congratulate the Migrant Forum of Asia, the Center of Migrant Advocacy, and all other organizations that have put together this historic World Social Forum on Labor Migration 2012. Thank you for taking on this enormous task, and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts here today. This gathering takes place at a time of great stresses and strains in the global economy, a condition that poses great dangers and challenges to migrant communities.
The topic of my talk here today is “Labor Trafficking as the Modern-day Slave Trade.” 
The freer flow of commodities and capital has been one of the features of the contemporary process of globalization. Unlike in the earlier phase of globalization in the 19th century, however, the freer flow of commodities and capital has not been accompanied by a freer movement of labor globally in the current phase of globalization. After all, the centers of the global economy—both the old sites of accumulation like Europe and the United States and the dynamic new sites like the Gulf states—have imposed ever-tighter restrictions on migration from the poorer countries. Yet the demand for cheap labor in the richer parts of the world continues to grow, even as more and more people in developing countries seek to escape conditions of economic stagnation and poverty that are often the result of the same dynamics of a system of global capitalism that have created prosperity in the developed world. 
The number of migrants worldwide has grown from 36 million in 1991 to around 250 million today.  The aggregate numbers do not, however, begin to tell the critical role that migrant labor plays in the prosperous economies. For instance, the booming economies in the Persian Gulf and Saudi peninsula are relatively lightly populated in terms of their local Arab population, but they host a substantial number of foreign migrant workers, many of whom come from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Indeed, foreign migrant workers are a disproportionate part of the populations of the Persian Gulf states— ranging from 25 percent in Saudi Arabia to 66 percent in Kuwait, to over 90 percent in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. 

This gap between increasing demand and restricted supply has created an explosive situation, one that has been filled by a global system of trafficking in human beings that can in many respects be compared to the slave trade of the 16th century. 
The dynamics of the current system of trade in repressed labor is illustrated in the case of the Philippines. This country is one of the great labor exporters of the world. Some 10 percent of its total population and 22 percent its working age population are now migrant workers in other countries. With remittances totaling some $20 billion a year, the Philippines places fourth as a recipient of remittances, after China, India, and Mexico.

Labor Export and Structural Adjustment

The country’s role as a labor exporter cannot be divorced from the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. The labor export program began in the mid-seventies as a temporary program under the Marcos dictatorship, with a relatively small number of workers involved—some 50,000. The ballooning of the program to encompass some 9 million workers owes much to the devastation of the economy and jobs by the structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund beginning in 1980, trade liberalization under the World Trade Organization, and the prioritization of debt repayment by the post-Marcos governments in national economic policy since 1986. 
Structural adjustment resulted in deindustrialization and the loss of so many manufacturing jobs; trade liberalization pushed so many peasants out of agriculture, a great number directly to overseas employment; and prioritization of debt repayments robbed government of resources for capital expenditures that could act as an engine of economic growth since some 20 to 40 per cent of the budget was allocated yearly to servicing the debt. In the role that structural adjustment and trade liberalization played in creating pressures for labor migration, the experience of the Philippines parallels that of Mexico, another key labor-exporting country.

Labor Export as Safety Valve

For the governments of the two countries as well, massive labor export has served another function, which is that of serving as a safety valve for the release of social pressures that would otherwise have been channeled into radical movements for political and social change internally. Those who migrate are often among the most intrepid, nimble, and sharp people in the lower and middle classes, the kind of people who would make excellent cadres and members of progressive movements for change. Along with the crisis of socialization of children owing to the absence of the mother, this is one of the most damaging legacies of the massive labor migration in the Philippines: that it has allowed our elites to ignore overdue structural reforms.

Labor Export as Big Business

Labor export is big business, having spawned a host of parasitic institutions that now have a vested interest in maintaining and expanding it. The transnational labor export network includes labor recruiters, government agencies and officials, labor smugglers, and big corporate service providers like the US multinational service provider Aramark. What is actually happening is the expansion of a system of labor trafficking that is just as big and as profitable as sex trafficking and the drug trade. The spread of free wage labor has often been associated with the expansion of capitalism. But what is currently occurring is the expansion and institutionalization of a system of unfree labor under contemporary neoliberal capitalism, a process not unlike the expansion of slave labor and repressed labor in the early phase of global capitalist expansion in the 16th century that was pointed out in the work of sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein.

Creating and Expansion of Unfree Labor: the Case of the Middle East

This expansive system that creates, maintains, and expands unfree labor is best illustrated in the case of the Middle East. 
This expansive system that creates, maintains, and expands unfree labor is best illustrated in the case of the Middle East. As Atiya Ahmad writes, “With the booming of the Gulf states’ petrodollar-driven economies from the early 1970s onwards, a vast and consolidated assemblage of government policies, social and political institutions, and public discourse developed to manage and police the region’s foreign resident population. Anchored by the kefala or sponsorship and guarantorship system, this assemblage both constructs and disciplines foreign residents into ‘temporary labor migrants.’” This elite-promoted construction of migrant identity promotes an internalization of the migrants’ role as social subordinates and an emasculation of their status as political agents. They are expected to remain and so far have largely behaved as non-participants in the politics of their so-called host societies, even these societies are swept by the winds of political change.
In 2009, some 64 per cent of the more than one million Filipino workers that went abroad went to the Middle East. Most of these workers were women and the biggest occupational category was household service workers or maids.
Here is how the labor trafficking system works in the states in the Arabian peninsula along the Persian Gulf:

  • A recruiter from a Gulf state contacts his man in the Philippines.
  • The Filipino contact goes to the remote provinces to recruit a young woman promising a wage of $400 a month, which is the minimum amount set by the Philippine government.
  • When she departs, the recruiter gives her another contract at the airport, one that is often written in Arabic, saying she will be paid only half or less that amount.
  • Upon arrival in her destination, she is provided by the Gulf recruiter with a temporary residence permit or iqama, but this is taken from her along with her passport by the recruiter or by her employer.
  • She is turned over to a family where she labors under slave-like conditions, being expected to work 18 to 20 hours a day.
  • It is common that among the services expected of her is to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the house, which creates an unbearable situation not only because refusal often brings a beating but also because this brings her into conflict with the wife.
  • She is isolated from other Filipino domestic workers, making her communication with the outside world dependent on her employer.
  • She cannot leave the employer because her temporary residence certificate and passport are with him. If she runs away, however, and goes to the labor recruiter, she is “sold” to another family, sometimes at an even lower rate than that paid by the original employer.
  • Unable to leave the country since she has no documents, the runaway most often ends up being sold from one family to another by the labor recruiter.
  • If she is lucky, she might find her way to the Philippine Embassy, which operates a shelter for runaways, but it will take months if not years for the Philippine Embassy to be able to obtain the necessary permits that would enable her to return home. 

How Regulation is Subverted

In its effort to curb this free market in virtual slavery or to prevent workers from going into countries where their physical security would be in great danger like Afghanistan or Iraq, the Philippine government requires government-issued permits for workers to be able to leave or it has imposed deployment bans to some countries. However, labor recruiters, which are often in cahoots not only with Middle East employers but also with the US Defense Department and US private contractors, have found ways of getting around these regulations.
There have developed clandestine networks to smuggle workers from the Southern Philippines to destinations in the Middle East. A number of women domestic workers I was able to interview in Damascus when I was there a few months ago told of being smuggled out in the Southern Philippine city of Zamboanga by small boat to the Malaysian state of Sabah. From there they were transported in the hold of a bigger boat going to Singapore, where they were then offloaded and brought by land transport to a site near Kuala Lumpur. In Kuala Lumpur they were forced to work for their subsistence for six weeks. It was only after two months that they were finally transported by plane from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, then to Damascus, where they found themselves in the midst of a civil war! If this sounds much like a route traveled by Indiana Jones, it is, though what they experience is not an adventure but hell.
With such illegal transnational human smuggling networks in operation, it is not surprising that of the nine thousand domestic workers in Syria, the Embassy estimated that 90 per cent were there illegally, that is they had no valid exit papers from the Philippines. Among other things, this has made locating them and contacting them very difficult after Manila issued orders to the Embassy last January to evacuate all Filipino workers in Syria.  When I was there in my capacity as chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs of the House of Representatives of the Philippines in March of this year, I joined a Philippine Embassy Rapid Response Team searching for Filipino domestics caught up in the civil war in the city of Homs. We were unable to locate anyone or even to verify how many had died as we traveled through that city’s shattered blocks, though we had been told that hundreds of domestics were trapped in the fighting. With a strong interest in presenting a façade of stability to the world, the Syrian government did not cooperate in our search. In fact, it did not even give us a permit to go to Homs, making our mission there an illegal one for which we could have been arrested and perhaps tried as spies, and believe me, you do not want to be arrested by Assad’s minions.
The situation is similar in Afghanistan and Iraq. For much the same reason, we do not have an accurate figure of how many Filipinos have been illegally recruited to be service workers in the US bases by the Pentagon and US military contractors, but 10,000 is probably a conservative number. In the case of Afghanistan, the collusion between illegal labor traffickers, the US government, and US private contractors poses a gargantuan challenge to the weak Philippine state.

Sexual Abuse: the Ever-present Menace

The predominance of women among the workers being trafficked to the Middle East has created a situation rife with sexual abuse, and a system whereby labor trafficking and sexual trafficking are increasingly intersecting. Here is an excerpt from a report of the House Committee on Overseas Workers following the visit of some members to Saudi Arabia that I led in January 2011:
“Rape is the ever-present specter that haunts Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. …Rape and sexual abuse is more frequent than the raw Embassy statistics reveal, probably coming to 15 to 20 per cent of cases reported for domestics in distress. If one takes these indicators as roughly representative of unreported cases of abuse of domestic workers throughout the kingdom, then one cannot but come to the conclusion that rape and sexual abuse is common.”
I would go further and say that there is a strong element of sex trafficking in the trafficking of Filipino women into the Middle East given the expectation, especially in many Gulf households, that providing sex to the master of the household is seen as part of the domestic worker’s tasks.
The horror of labor cum sex trafficking is illustrated by the experience of Lorena, one of the rape victims that the mission was able to interview during the January 2011 mission to Saudi Arabia. Let me quote from the report extensively since Embassy officials and human rights activists say the harrowing experience of this woman is not uncommon among Filipino household workers in the Gulf states:
“Lorena [not her real name] is in her mid-twenties, lithe, and pretty—qualities that marked her as prime sexual prey in the Saudi jungle. And indeed, her ordeal began when they arrived at her employer’s residence from the airport. “He forced a kiss on me,” she recalled. Fear seized her and she pushed him away.
“He was not deterred. “One week after I arrived,” she recounted, “he raped me for the first time. He did it while his wife was away. He did it after he commanded me to massage him and I refused, saying that was not what I was hired for. Then in July he raped me two more times. I just had to bear it [“Tiniis ko na lang”] because I was so scared to run away. I didn’t know anyone.”
“While waiting for her employer and his wife in a shopping mall one day, Lorena came across some Filipino nurses, whom she begged for help. Upon hearing her story, they gave her a SIM card and pitched in to buy her a load.
“But the domestic torture continued. She would be slapped for speaking Arabic since her employer’s wife said she was hired to speak English. She was given just one piece of bread to eat at mealtime and she had to supplement this with scraps from the family’s plates. She was loaned to the wife’s mother’s household to clean the place, and her reward for this was her being raped by the wife’s brother; kinship apparently confers the right to rape the servants of relatives. Also during that month, October, she was raped—for the fourth time—by her employer.
“She not only had to contend with sexual aggression but with sheer cruelty. Once, while cleaning, she fell and cut herself. With blood gushing from the wound, she pleaded with the employer’s wife to bring her to the hospital. She refused, and when Lorena asked her to allow her to call her mother in the Philippines, she again said no, telling her this was too expensive. The employer arrived at that point, but instead of bringing her to the hospital, he said, “You might as well die.” Lorena had to stanch the wound with her own clothes and treat herself with pills she had brought with her from the Philippines.
“Wildly desperate by now, Lorena finally managed to get in touch with personnel of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Al Khobar. Arrangements were made to rescue her on December 30. That morning, the rescue team from POLO and the local police arrived at the residence. Lorena flagged them frantically from a second story window and told them she wanted to jump, but the team advised her not to because she could break her leg. That was a costly decision, since the employer raped her again—for the fifth time—even with the police right outside the residence. When she dragged herself to her employer’s wife and begged her to keep her husband away from her, she beat her instead, calling her a liar. “I was screaming and screaming, and the police could hear me, but they did not do anything.”
“When the employer realized that he was about to be arrested, he begged Lorena not to tell the police anything because he would lose his job and offered to pay for her ticket home. “I said I would not tell on him and say that he was a good man, just so that he would just let me go [‘para lang makatakas ako’],” Lorena said. When she was finally rescued moments later, Lorena recounted her ordeal to the POLO team and police, and the employer was arrested.”
This story, unfortunately, had a sad ending, since, after we left Saudi Arabia, the naval officer’s lawyers were able to drag out the case to the point where Lorena was forced to an out-of-court settlement which gave her a small monetary compensation in return for the naval officer’s going scot-free. As both Embassy officials and domestics themselves confirmed, very few are prosecuted for rape and sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia. Tolerated by the Saudi legal system, employers find it easy to have their maids and rape them too.

Ending Modern-day Slavery

Let me sum up the key points of this presentation so far:
 The creation of the labor-export economy in countries like the Philippines stemmed greatly from the impact of structural adjustment, trade liberalization, and the prioritization of debt repayment, policies that led to industrialization, the erosion of local agriculture, and the gutting of state investment, disabling it as an engine of growth.
 Labor export became a safety valve draining the country of forces that could have contributed to progressive political movements and allowing the elite to keep on postponing much needed structural reforms.
 The dynamics of neoliberal capitalism have led to the creation of a global system of labor trafficking, reinforcing insight of Immanuel Wallerstein that the development of capitalist relations of production does not, in many cases, displace but reinforce or promote the spread of unfree labor. This includes not only new centers of capital accumulation like the Middle East but also old centers like the United States.
 With a great number—indeed, in the case of the Philippines—the majority of migrant workers being women, rape and sexual abuse has become a central element in the system of unfree labor, in particular in labor trafficking in the Gulf states.
Slavery is said to be a thing of the past. However, the dynamics of global capitalism have reproduced a system of repressive labor globally that is serviced and maintained by legal and illegal labor trafficking. Female domestic workers are at the bottom of the migrant social hierarchy in places like the Middle East. Their conditions of work, which often include rape and sexual abuse, constitute a condition virtually indistinguishable from slavery. As was the case with traditional slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, abolition of this system of repressed, unfree labor must be high on the agenda of the 21st century.
A key part of the solution, of course, is to restructure our economies so that we can create the decent jobs at home that would make it unnecessary for great numbers of our people to go abroad in search of work. This task would entail ending the neoliberal policies that have eroded our industrial sector and our agriculture. It would mean completing land reform and other asset redistribution measures that address poverty and promote equity. It would include measures that advance women’s health, reduce poverty, and bring about development such as the Reproductive Health Bill in the case of the Philippines.
But even as we reform our domestic economy, we must protect our migrant workers and advance their rights and interests as they labor abroad to sustain their families at home and, in the process, keep the domestic economy above water with their billions of dollars worth of remittances.
As advocates of migrant workers, we have a huge task ahead of us. Yet over the years we have made progress: 
 We now have a global network of activist organizations working for migrant rights. 
 We also have increasing numbers of scholars and research institutes dedicated to illuminating the migrant condition. 
 A number of our governments have, under the pressure of both migrant workers and their citizens, institutionalized social services, legal services, and even the beginnings of a social protection system for their overseas workers. 
 In the receiving or host countries, the rights of migrants are now championed by concerned citizens, political parties, and progressive governments.  This is especially critical in Europe and the United States today, as the economic crisis in these areas creates the conditions for scapegoating migrants.
 Among the sending countries, parliamentary groups, among them the Asian Interparliamentary Caucus on Labor Migration, are increasingly talking about coordinating their efforts to defend and advance the rights of their workers abroad. This may eventually lead to a common front among sending countries, so that they may counter the tactics of some receiving countries to pit them against each other in their search for cheap labor.
Having said this, we must nonetheless admit that we have quite a distance to go in furthering the rights and welfare of migrants. I am confident that the World Social Forum on Migration 2012 will be a milestone in this process. As we begin our work, let us be inspired by the World Social Forum slogan: “Another world is possible.”