Finding the right answer: modern slavery definition and typology.

The ILO Global Estimates report is without a doubt an enormous data collection effort, a quality product of international organizations working together toward a globally accepted definition on what is modern slavery, it does a fair job on the general division into two main categories -forced labor and forced marriage- because it allows a clear understanding of what the problem is, and how globalization plays a significant role in such practices; the report also accurately depicts the methodological problems for researchers and the intricacy of the phenomenon in today’s society. However, I disagree with the umbrella term “modern slavery” since it resembles more a description of situations rather than a description of the nature and scope of a problem, such ambiguity in terminology diminishes the effectiveness of justice, public policies, and victim’s protection.

When the ILO describes modern slavery as “a set of specific legal concepts including forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery, and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking,” (ILO & et al., 2017, p. 16) the notion of exploitation is not clear enough. The new “modern slavery” differs from the original concept of slavery where the control of a person over others was explicitly coined. On this particular point, activists converge on the notion that modern slavery is about “being exploited and completely controlled by someone else, without being able to leave” (International, 2019) a domination that may “take the form of physical constraint or a more abstract” (Allain, 2012, p. 376) such as psychological control and abuse. Failing to explicitly state on the report that exploitation and control are intrinsically linked to a slavery condition, the umbrella term runs short as a definition. On this matter, Patterson and Zhou examine the need for a globally accepted definition on what involves trafficking, (modern) slavery and other forms of exploitation (Patterson & Zhuo, 2018) concluding that the term servitude would serve much better as an umbrella term due to the continuum of the condition involved.

Whereas Patterson and Zhou refer to conditions that involve temporality, exploitation, coercion and degrading forms of domination toward another person, the ILO refers to situations of exploitation that impedes a person to refuse such circumstances.

Conversely to ILO’s umbrella term, Patterson and Zhou proposed a prior definition of forced labor and adapted it to modern times. In this context, servitude is the “condition in which the work, service or relationships of another person are not freely offered or if voluntarily initiated, cannot be left or refused, and are maintained under the threat of physical or psychological coercion, violence or some other penalty.” (Patterson & Zhuo, 2018, p. 410) Servitude centers on specific forms of domination or control aimed at continuing the exploitative condition of the victim for purposes of profit. This condition fluctuates in time, is dynamic.

The ILO has a simple typology of modern slavery – forced labor and forced marriage – that it seems more focused on meeting international standards for future recommendations than finding root causes of the conditions that lead to servitude and trafficking. Although the report does include some other concepts like trafficking in persons and slave-like practices they are encompassed by generalities and situations, which makes it harder for the future.

Patterson and Zhou’s typology is broader than the ILO including traditional and modern slavery, bonded labor, international migrant forced laborers, domestic servitude, sexual servitude, child servitude, marital servitude, and state servitude. (Patterson, 2019) In the context of the ILO report, forced labor is a situation determined by “the nature of the relationship between a person and the employer” (ILO &, 2017, p. 16) where the person cannot be released voluntarily from the work or service despite the legality or illegality of it and failing to do so would imply serious or even fatal consequences. Also, the report subdivides forced labor into three categories: labor exploitation in the private economy, sexual exploitation, and state-imposed. On the other hand, Patterson and Zhou determined forced labor like all the forms of servitude on which “the exploitation of labor, sexual and non-sexual, for profit is the primary motivation of the exploiter” (Patterson & Zhuo, 2018, p. 410) including abusive migration.

The ILO subgroup of labor exploitation in the private economy includes bonded labor, domestic work, and slave-like practices. Patterson and Zhuo concur with ILO’s concept of bonded labor as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services” (ILO 2001, p.124) and they also incorporate bonded labor, domestic work and slave-like practices with two main differences 1) they take into account sexual trafficking, sexual servitude, and child servitude, and 2) they link the fluidity of servitude to seasonal recruitment and how this practice push population toward ill-designed contracts.

Regarding domestic work as forced labor, the ILO situates this kind of exploitation as the result of failed labor laws that leave unprotected the working population. Patterson and Zhou, on the other hand, associate domestic work exploitation with the condition of poverty, abusive migration, smuggling and the intimate relationship of domination between the employer-employee that resembles more traditional enslavement (Patterson & Zhuo, 2018, p. 416) and not only because of insufficient labor laws. The third subgroup of forced labor -slave-like practices- also known as state slavery consists of exploiting individuals in jail systems, re-education camps, state-run facilities for the purpose of profit and/or economic development. (Patterson, 2019) On this subgroup, there is a common understanding that the exploitation is conditioned to the economic development of the state and previous history of slavery rather than poverty or globalization alone.

Concerning the second typology of modern slavery -forced marriage- academic, activists and researchers concur that regardless of age, anyone who has been forced to marry without their consent falls under this category on this matter, Patterson and Zhuo concur with the general definition supporting that any person under 18 years old will be considered child marriage with or without the condition of coercion. (UNICEF, 2013)

The ILO did an excellent job in the data collection effort, although a better system is needed to increase the reliability of the data, the final product showed international organizations working together toward a universal definition. However, the term “modern slavery” conveys more to political agendas and legal systems due of its ambiguity than to the effectiveness of justice, public policies and victim’s protection, the inaccuracy of the term neutralizes the impact of authorities, activists and scholars alike.

Thinking ahead

Understanding the term servitude as a condition affecting people’s life in which work or the relationship is dominated by a physical or psychological constraint that coercively impedes such person to refuse or leave the circumstances they are in, fits much better as an umbrella term in view of the fact that servitude includes all types of exploitation, not only those related to specific legal terms as in the case of the definition suggested in the ILO report.

Overall, the ILO Global Estimates is the most comprehensive report available on matters of servitude, although its vagueness of definitions, it stresses the necessity for better data collection systems to build evidence against criminals, design public policies and social protection focusing on the victims. It is a stepping stone on finding the right answer on what involves modern slavery.

Published by Gaby Rendon

My background is in national security and intelligence studies, lots of solving-problem and analytics. When I tried to return to work, all the logical plans failed, and while researching job opportunities I discovered a community of stay-at-home-moms struggling with the same problems as me. For over a year, I've mentored several young women professionals and entrepreneurs. I coach moms who want to become mompreneurs.

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