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Labor Trafficking

A Modern-day Slave Trade

Walden Bello May 16, 2012

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 19thcentury, however, the freer flow of commodities and capital has not been accompanied by a freer movement of labor globally. The dynamic centers of the global economy, after all, 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 191 million in 2005, according to Guy Arnold, author of Migration: Changing the World, one of the most exhaustive studies on the phenomenon.  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 role of the Philippines as a labor exporter cannot be divorced from the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.The labor export program began in the mid-1970s as a temporary program under the Marcos dictatorship, with a relatively small number of workers involved– about 50,000.  The ballooning of the program to encompass 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 the government of resources for capital expenditures that could act as an engine of economic growth since 20-40 percent of the budget went every year 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.

For the governments of the two countries as well, massive labor export has served another function: 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, the most nimble, and the most acute 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.

Unfree Labor: the Case of the Middle East

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 U.S. multinational service provider Aramark.  Labor trafficking is expanding to become just as big and 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 elaborated in the work of sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein.


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, 64 percent 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 recruitment agency 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. On arrival at the destination, she receives from the Gulf recruiter a temporary residence permit or iqama, but this is taken from her along with her passport by the recruiter or by her employer.


The migrant worker is then turned over to a family where she labors under slave-like conditions for 18 to 20 hours a day. 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 obtain the necessary permits to 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, who are often in cahoots not only with Middle East employers but also with the U.S. Defense Department and U.S. private contractors, have found ways of getting around these regulations. 

Clandestine networks have developed to smuggle workers from the southern Philippines to destinations in the Middle East. A number of women domestic interviewed in Damascus a few weeks 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. Only after two months were they finally transported by plane from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, then to Damascus. 

With such illegal transnational human smuggling networks in operation, the Philippine embassy estimated that 90 percent of the 9,000 domestic workers in Syria 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 from Syria.

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 at the U.S. bases by the Pentagon and U.S. military contractors, but 10,000 is probably a conservative number. In the case of Afghanistan, the collusion between illegal labor traffickers, the U.S. government, and U.S. 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. In this system labor trafficking and sexual trafficking are increasingly intersecting. Here is an excerpt from a report of the House Committee on Overseas Workers of the Philippines following the visit of some members to Saudi Arabia 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.

One could go further and say that there is a strong element of sex trafficking in the trafficking of Filipino women into the Middle East given that many Gulf households expect that providing sex to the master of the household is part of the domestic worker’s tasks. What results is an unbearable situation, not only because refusal often brings a beating but also because this brings her into conflict with the wife. Indeed, in many instances, domestic workers are “lent” to relatives not only to have them clean up the latter’s homes but to serve as sexual playthings to male brothers or in-laws.

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 of traditional slavery in the 18thand 19th centuries, abolition of this system of repressed, unfree labor must be high on the agenda of the 21st century.

This article was originally published by ZCommunications and FPIF.

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