Labour exploitation is a highly topical though complex issue that has international resonance for those concerned with social justice and social welfare, but there is a lack of research available about it. This book, part of the Studies in Social Harm series, is the first to look at labour exploitation from a social harm perspective, arguing that, as a global social problem, it should be located within the broader study of work-based harm.
Written by an expert in policy orientated research, he critiques existing approaches to the study of workplace exploitation, abuse and forced labour. Mapping out a new sub-discipline, this innovative book aims to shift power from employers to workers to reduce levels of labour exploitation and work-based harm. It is relevant to academics from many fields as well as legislators, policy makers, politicians, employers, union officials, activists and consumers.
Following Brexit, and the ending of freedom of movement, labour supply crises have emerged in the UK. The paper focuses on the horticultural sector, where these crises have been particularly pronounced, with fears of crops being left to rot in the fields now commonplace.
Aims and objectives:
To examine the scale and nature of employer pressure on government with respect to UK low-wage migration policymaking in the period (2016–2020) following the Brexit vote.
Thematic analysis of five parliamentary inquiries over the 2016–2020 Brexit period covering 515 documents and amounting to a total of 4,227 pages of evidence.
Numerous political inquiries emerged after the 2016 Brexit referendum that opened up the opportunity for employers to publicly press government for more liberal low-wage migration policies. Employers responded with concerted, weighty and consistent pressure that revolved around: emphasising a labour supply crisis; underlining the lack of suitable local labour; presenting government with a range of unsavoury alternatives to low-wage immigration; and championing a new seasonal guestworker scheme to avoid these unsavoury alternatives.
Discussion and conclusions:
The Brexit period (2016–2020) saw a willingness within UK government to listen to employers with respect to migration policy. In the food production industry, employers responded with a strong and consistent voice and they got what they wanted: a new horticultural guestworker scheme. We cannot say for certain though that correlation equals causation, and more research is now needed into the intimate entanglement of employers and political elites in the migration policy process.
Employers may use various mechanisms to produce and reproduce what they recognise as ‘good’ and ‘better’ workers, but within these mechanisms there may be elements of obfuscation with respect to both the visibility and origins of control. The chapter recognises this point by turning attention to indirect controls within the workplace. From arm’s-length employment occurring through labour market intermediaries, to the debt-based systems driving people to work, through to the moulding of staff via workplace culture, the disciplining of workers by proxy (fear), and management by bureaucracy, there are now myriad ways in which behaviour at work is shaped indirectly and without capital ‘getting its hand dirty’.
When considering the link between work and social harm it would be naïve to restrict analysis to the workplace and to the direct and indirect controls within it. ‘Good’ and ‘better’ workers are clearly produced and reproduced beyond the workplace and it is to exogenous controls that this chapter looks. Issues of insecurity, inequality, variable citizenship, social steering and human enhancement are all visited in order to demonstrate how people, outside of the workplace, may be conditioned to perform appropriately when at work. A social harm perspective would argue that these exogenous controls are often problematic and that we should be aiming for greater ontological security, greater equality, the equalisation of citizenship rights, reduced work-related social steering, and an ethical stance towards human enhancement that respect diversity and dignity.
This chapter focuses on the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable (that is, exploitative) work-based control. It argues that there is a need for much greater discussion and debate from those interested in defining labour exploitation. For example, there is undoubtedly a nebulous boundary between consent and coercion that requires more critical attention. There is also the opportunity to help define labour exploitation by establishing its polar opposite (i.e. decent work). In addition, outcomes (especially physical and psychological harm) are usually a good indicator of exploitation, but more work is needed on both identifying the nature of harm and in linking it to control and exploitation. Finally, some forms of exploitation are easier to explain, rationalise and justify than others, and so the boundary between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable is, in some cases, context specific. Overall, then, and having mapped out the controls workers face in the preceding chapters, it is important to discuss and debate when and where these controls may be tied to exploitation and harm.
This chapter focuses on preventing exploitation and harm. The most prominent solution concerns the establishment of legal baselines through national and international conventions, codes and laws. In many countries, these are then used as the basis for labour inspection and enforcement regimes. Although a central component in the fight against exploitation and harm, this ‘baseline’ approach only goes so far. Most obviously, it is clear that there is a ‘justice gap’ between de jure protection and the levels of exploitation and harm actually experienced by workers. To address this, the chapter argues that we must look at alternative solutions. It is clear, for instance, that the form of capitalism in operation can dramatically shape workers’ experiences. Other than looking at capitalism, one can also look to the power (im)balance between labour and capital as a cause of, and solution to, exploitation and harm. The role of trade unions, the level of income inequality between workers, and the ability of workers to peacefully protest, are all important markers in this respect.
This chapter draws together the main conclusions from the preceding eight chapters of the book. In the process, it identifies four issues with the dominant legal perspective around problems at/with work. First, even when legal baselines exist to purportedly protect workers from exploitation and harm they are rarely invoked and are ill-equipped to enable victims to take on (often powerful) state and corporate interests. Second, legal frameworks, especially those based on criminal law, tend to direct attention towards extreme labour market abuse. The problem of work-based exploitation and harm is, therefore, defined in a narrow way. Third, the legal system is predisposed towards the identification of individual criminal actors and is unsuited to the apportioning of blame at an institutional or structural level. Finally, legal frameworks imply that the solution to exploitation and harm lies within a law enforcement approach that first discourages and then criminalises abusive employment relationships. A social harm perspective is liberating in this respect because, while acknowledging the value of criminalising malpractice, solutions beyond criminology are seen as equally, and often more, important.
This chapter argues that to study problems at work in a progressive and critical manner one needs to be attentive to language and terminology. In other words, one needs to think carefully about how a problem is socially constructed, and in some cases constricted. In particular, studies of workplace abuse have tended to focus on extreme manifestations of the phenomenon (i.e. slavery, forced labour, human trafficking). This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for protecting workers. To widen the debate, the chapter (and book) employs the language of ‘control’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘harm’ as representing the problem to be investigated. This language is inspired by insights from the ‘social harm’ literature. This literature, most notably, identifies underlying structures (especially those associated with neoliberal capitalism) as worthy of critique. Thus, the problem of labour exploitation is not only larger than many would have us believe, it also has causes that are beyond the scope of the conventional criminal justice approach. The chapter concludes by outlining the data sources used throughout, and by mapping out the book’s eight remaining chapters.
This chapter outlines the various forms of labour exploitation that exist. At the extreme end of the ‘continuum’ there is worker fatality both at work and through work. There are then extreme forms of non-fatal harm, including: chattel slavery; modern slavery; forced labour; human trafficking; and child labour. All of these extremes have criminal–legal frameworks associated with them that are designed to minimise their prevalence. Often, however, these criminal–legal frameworks are either inadequate or are not enforced, and so extreme forms of exploitation and harm go unpunished. Moreover, a great deal of exploitation and harm, as argued in the introduction, goes on above these criminal–legal baseline definitions. This book, is particularly interested in the labour exploitation continuum that includes, but is certainly not limited to, illegal employer practice.
This chapter argues that it is important to examine lessons of history with respect to the control and emancipation of labour. The chapter focuses on eight particular lessons. These are purposefully selective. It is not possible within a single chapter to provide a definitive history of work-based control, exploitation and harm. Collectively, the lessons of history show how progress towards reducing work-based exploitation and harm is possible and, indeed, that the world has moved on a long way towards this end. Nevertheless, they also show how difficult it often is to challenge established structures, systems and norms. Related to this, in many instances change has been gradual and incremental; though there are occasional cases (such as the abolition of slavery and development of the trade union movement) where paradigm shifts do occur.