Combatting human trafficking – without the unions?

A version of this article appears today on Equal Times, a global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment which is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Sherlock Holmes once pointed out “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to a police officer. The officer replied that “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes famously responded, “That was the curious incident.”

The “curious incident” at a major international conference on human trafficking held in Vienna earlier this month concerns the international trade union movement. Those attending the conference may reply, “but there were no unions in the room”. And that is curious.

The conference was sponsored by the “Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons” which was set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) some years ago. While the OSCE is a group of 57 countries, mainly in Europe, the Alliance is described as a “broad voluntary platform of over 30 members including international and non-governmental organizations”. To the organizers of the event, unions are apparently not an important part of the fight to end human trafficking.

The conference opened in one of the grand halls of the Vienna Hofburg and began with speakers congratulating the OSCE on its decision to appoint a “special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings”. That co-ordinator is Madina Jarbussynova, a veteran diplomat from Kazakhstan who (according to the OSCE) is strong promoter of human rights. The same cannot be said of her government, which still has questions to answer about the December 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.

The opening session included other prominent speakers whose record, or the record of the governments they represented, were not ideal on the subject of human rights. Vladimir Garkun from Belarus spoke on the opening panel, representing a government widely described as the “last dictatorship in Europe” with a notorious record on human and workers’ rights.

And one of the first participants to intervene in debates was the representative of the government of Uzbekistan, who rattled off a list of laws his country has adopted to fight human trafficking. According to the OSCE’s own report (more on this later), the ratification in 2008 by Uzbekistan of ILO conventions banning trafficking had little effect. “A report in 2010,” the OSCE states, “estimated that forced child labour accounted for over half the country’s cotton harvest.”

The tone of many of the early speeches was self-congratulatory. One could not help but wonder why a conference was needed at all, as organizations like the OSCE had not only adopted an “Action Plan” in 2000 to combat human trafficking, but had even passed an “Addendum” in 2013. (Did anyone outside of the hall even know this?)

The fact that this was the 14th conference of the Alliance hints at the fact that combatting human trafficking has become a sort of cottage industry, with a wide range of players, many of them quite sincere, producing reports and holding conferences.

But was any of this helping put an end to modern slavery, to the scourge of human trafficking?

Not according to William Lacy Swing, the 80-year-old Director General of the International Organization for Migration. Swing, a veteran US diplomat, made a forceful speech that raised serious issues about the effectiveness of the international response to trafficking. “We have hardly made a dent in solving the problem,” he said.

Swing also raised the question of Europe becoming the most dangerous destination in the world for migrant workers, some of them trafficked, and criticized the recent European decision to reduce efforts to rescue migrants at sea. (This was another issue few participants were keen to discuss.)

It was not until the late afternoon on the first day that a panel was held which included speakers who were not diplomats, who did not represent states, and who could say interesting things about the subject of human trafficking.

Igor Kovalchuk from the Seafarers Trade Union of the Russian Federation was on the panel. Kovalchuk spoke about some successes his union had in Russian courts, and about their good relationship with government ministries being a key to their work. He spoke proudly about his union’s “interactive website” and print publication, and that was it. He was the only spokesperson for the international labour movement.

Fortunately, three of the other speakers on the panel did introduce unions into the equation — though none of them were there representing unions.

One was John Morrison of the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Businesses. Morrison mentioned unions as partners with business in the fight to bring an end to human trafficking, though inevitably his focus was on what business could do.

A second was Reverend Noelle Damico from the USA, who spoke about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which though not technically a trade union has had some success in putting an end to human slavery in Florida’s tomato farms.

The third — the one who most explicitly spoke about the key role trade unions can play in the fight against modern slavery — was Cindy Berman, from the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK. ETI is a coalition representing business, NGOs and trade unions — where unions are not simply part of the NGO component. Her message could not have been clearer:

“Unionised workers are unlikely to be trafficked workers. . . . Governments can play a vital role through laws and policies that enable workers to have the right to organize and that they can claim these rights in practice. . . . Nothing is as effective as having organized workers that are democratically represented to negotiate their own terms and conditions of work.”

That panel was chaired by Beate Andrees, from the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, and she emphasized the importance of the ILO conventions as a legal basis for the fight against slavery.

One tangible thing that did come out of the conference was a 100 page report entitled “Ending exploitation” published by the OSCE. Though the report’s subtitle references the role of businesses and states, it does include two pages on “initiatives by trade unions or workers’ organizations” including the Italian national trade union center CGIL and the International Transport Workers Federation. It is worth reading (http://www.osce.org/secretariat/126305).

The conference ended with Madina Jarbussynova saying that “we can and must move from policy to practice in combating human trafficking.” This is an odd observation fourteen years after the OSCE adopted its “Action Plan” and during the course of its 14th conference on the subject.

Maybe next time they might consider bringing unions to the table. We may have something to add to the conversation.

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