Looking at the Inspectors: Addressing labour exploitation

Looking at the Inspectors: Addressing labour exploitation

30 July 2016

Dr Sarah Kyambi

University of Edinburgh


To mark World Anti-Trafficking Day this weekend, we highlight DemandAT research into addressing demand and the actions taken to tackle trafficking for labour exploitation.  The DemandAT project is tasked with developing a comprehensive analysis of trafficking in all its forms to develop greater understanding of those measures that address the demand-side of this phenomenon. Our focus here on labour exploitation is intended as a corrective to a general emphasis on sexual exploitation in discussions of trafficking. The prevalence of labour exploitation was also highlighted in the UK in the past week in coverage of the Sports Direct inquiry revealing ‘Victorian workhouse conditions’ within this profitable high street chain. This blogpost draws on research presented at a recent DemandAT workshop ‘Trafficking in human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation: Addressing Demand’ and the ensuing discussions of stakeholders and project partners.

The Workshop presented findings from DemandAT research to understand how labour inspectorates address demand related to trafficking across Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. A report bringing together findings and analysis will be available by 2017. Thinking of demand-side measures as those actions and policies that seek to influence the behaviour of those actors expressing a demand for goods, services or labour, it is clear that across all the countries studied measures to address demand do exist.  Yet the research also found that labour inspectorates and policy makers do not formulate their efforts explicitly in terms of addressing ‘demand’.  The workshop itself included lively discussion about the usefulness, or otherwise, of ‘demand’ as a concept in this context. To a degree this highlights the extent to which demand as a concept appears to many stakeholders as wedded to debates in relation to sexual exploitation where ‘the demand’ has been framed in a particular way to refer to the demand of a client for sexual services.

Yet how we frame the idea of demand in relation to trafficking and exploitation is of significance given that both the European Union Trafficking Directive and the Palermo Protocol make reference to the need for states to make efforts to discourage ‘demand that fosters all forms of exploitation’ and leads to trafficking. The DemandAT project has sought to contribute to clarity on the concept of demand in the context of trafficking – see Cyrus and Vogel (2015). Nonetheless, the current conflicting uses of the concept in anti-trafficking debates lead many to shy away from ‘demand’ altogether.

Yet the usefulness of demand as a concept when analysing the efforts of labour inspectorates in tackling trafficking and forced labour may become more apparent when one considers the challenges facing labour inspectorates.  One striking realisation at the June 2016 workshop was the patchiness of regulation and inspection and the variation in the sectors regulated and targeted across the four countries studied.  Despite attempting rational justification for focusing efforts on sectors and industries, actual practice appears driven by a mixture of historical events and opportunistic pragmatism.  Some sectors are prioritised because they are large, others become blind spots because they are challenging to inspect.  One workshop presentation posed the question: ‘Are these prioritized sectors formed and influenced by factors that are more promising in terms of revenues and less efforts?’ On the other hand, labour inspection regimes regardless of size and structure face a common challenge: how to maintain compliance with the regulatory regime given that inspectorates do not have the resources to inspect all workplaces all of the time.  Another workshop presentation observes that as legal instruments and other mechanisms are available and appear sufficient, difficulties arise mainly from a lack of enforcement.

It is here that thinking about addressing demand would have benefits, as part of policy efforts to steer people away from undesirable and illegal actions by focusing on how best to try to change what they want and how they behave.  Legal regulatory regimes are, no doubt, part of steering behavior away from acts that are sanctioned, but agencies like labour inspectorates should not only focus on apprehending and sanctioning the breach of legal standards.  They also need to think about how they can get more people to comply with those legal standards simply as a matter of course.  Because that means more compliance overall and also leaves more resources for tackling the smaller proportion of persistent offenders. Addressing demand can help focus efforts not only on apprehending and punishing those express demands that are exploitative, but also into changing what it occurs to employers and others to demand by using softer policy approaches such as peer pressure, moral suasion, market incentives and design solutions. (see further Boswell & Kyambi (2016))

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole


Show your solidarity with victims of human trafficking: download the 'how to' for more details on getting involved, support the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking and participate in the activities on 30 July, marking the World Day throughout the globe.