Does Organised Crime Drive Modern Slavery, or Is It Something Else?

Does Organised Crime Drive Modern Slavery, or Is It Something Else?

Cindy Berman
22 Mar, 2018

Modern slavery is often linked to organised crime. We assume the problem is driven by criminal gangs that make huge profits from trafficking and exploiting vulnerable children, women and men into forced labour, sexual exploitation or other activities that violate their basic human rights and freedoms.

But I don’t agree. I would argue that organised crime simply takes advantage of the factors that allow modern slavery to thrive in the global economy.

Of course, there is evidence to support the view that organised crime drives modern slavery. Take the case of Abdou, a 26-year-old man from Senegal who works in the tomato fields of Puglia in Italy.

Abdou is one of around 500,000 migrant workers who pick and pack Italian tomatoes used in the canned and processed tomato products that make up 60% of the tomatoes sold in Europe, including the UK. He was recruited by the Caporali – illegal gangmasters who recruit and manage crews of migrant workers. They keep half his pay, and control his life – his transport to and from work, housing, food, hours and wages. He cannot communicate directly with his employer, and cannot get another job without the Caporali.

The Italian government banned the ‘caporaleto’ system in 2011 and strengthened the law in October 2016 after the issue was brought to light in university studies and through campaigns and exposés by civil society groups and the media. Pressure from international retailers also played a part. Yet the ‘caporaleto’ system persists in many places because the government has failed to monitor and enforce the law effectively.

But even if the criminal Caporali were locked up and prosecuted and ceased to operate in the tomato sector in southern Italy, the problem of labour exploitation and abuse of migrant workers would still exist.

Tomatoes are the crown jewels of Italian agriculture and Italy’s main agricultural export. But these exports are dependent on migrant workers, many of whom arrive from Africa, having fled conflict, poverty and unemployment, and are desperate for a job so they can send money home to their families. They are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they don’t speak the language; they depend on ‘brokers’ to find them a job, and aren’t entitled to the same labour rights or protections as the citizens of the ‘host’ country in which they are working.

These migrants earn very little, work long hours and are unlikely to find a better paying job elsewhere. Their ability to return home is almost nil, because they simply cannot afford it. They are in debt because they had to raise money to travel abroad for work – whether they were smuggled, trafficked, tricked or migrated legally.

Sadly, this scenario is all too common around the world. While the specifics vary depending on the country, sector and type of work, the exploitation of workers who are doing long hours of back-breaking work for little pay, with poor food and accommodation, is a growing feature of the global economy. Women and girls are likely to face additional sexual abuse and threat, and are usually paid the least.

Workers in situations of modern slavery are found at the extreme edges of exploitation and abuse, where they are denied their basic human rights, including the freedom to choose their employer, leave their job or join a trade union. They are coerced, threatened and trapped in their jobs; they may be held in debt bondage, have their IDs or passports taken from them, their wages withheld, or they may be physically or emotionally threatened.

Yet most of these workers aren’t in the thrall of criminal gangs. Some will have paid a recruiter to secure their job, but that recruiter may be their uncle or someone they trust in their community – someone who has spotted an opportunity to make a bit of money whilst helping the family send someone abroad to send remittances home. Of course, they’re taking advantage of vulnerability to make a profit, but they are not involved in organised crime.

In fact, recent evidence shows that those involved in the recruitment of migrant workers aren’t making vast profits – all the way along the ‘trafficking chain’, people are making small profits and greasing the wheels for desperate people to find jobs elsewhere. That often includes government officials who might run their own recruitment agencies or take a kick-back to stamp the immigration documents of a migrant worker as a way of supplementing their low pay as civil servants.

I’m not saying this is acceptable. It certainly isn’t. But these aren’t organised criminal gangs.

Organised crime operates in and takes advantage of ungoverned spaces. These are places where the government fails to regulate the private sector or to ensure that labour laws are enforced and monitored, where it fails to extend universal human rights to migrants and other vulnerable groups of workers operating in the formal or informal sectors.

Governments at national or local level may do this willingly, or out of neglect or ignorance. They may have no political appetite to regulate the private sector, wishing instead to attract investment and trade based on cheap labour and tax breaks. They may allow it to happen because they lack the capacity, resources or know-how to implement and monitor the enforcement of labour laws. These are likely to be poor countries where there are wider governance failures and a lack of rule of law. But ignorance is not an excuse.

Responsible brands, retailers and suppliers, civil society organisations, trade unions and bodies such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) are calling on governments to create a level playing field for ethical trade. They want governments to regulate the private sector, to monitor and enforce labour standards, and to protect workers from exploitation and abuse.

In the case of the Italian tomato sector, ETI’s members are involved in a multi-stakeholder programme to tackle modern slavery in the industry. But they aren’t looking to the police for solutions. They are discussing the roles and responsibilities of supermarkets, suppliers and exporters, farm owners, civil society organisations, trade unions and the Italian government in tackling this problem.

Modern slavery and human trafficking exist because there are people in the global economy who benefit from them. Some are organised criminals, but many aren’t. Taking the criminals out of the equation would of course be a positive step. But on its own, it would not end modern slavery.

Cindy Berman is the Head of Modern Slavery Strategy at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). She is a specialist in modern slavery, business and human rights and international development.

Main image credit: marissaorton, via Flickr.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.