Globalization and the New Slave Trade

Walden Bello


Illustration by Zhou Jiajun

Congressman and activist Walden Bello asks: Is labor export the new slave trade?

Globalization is a process that “disintegrates” the national economy and “reintegrates” parts of it at the global level in accordance with the dynamics of global capital.  The increasing lack of coherence among local agriculture, industry, and services has been paralleled by the Philippines’ assuming three key roles in the global division of labor: as an assembler of electronic chips for export; a site for the transfer of Business Processing Activities (BPOs) from the developed countries; and as an exporter of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled labor.

For all intents and purposes, the most dynamic sector of the economy is labor export.  While government authorities are loath to acknowledge this, and there is only perfunctory acknowledgment of its role in the economy in the medium-term development plans, the reality is that it is labor export, with the billions of dollars it brings in to support the consumption of families of overseas workers, that keeps the economy afloat.

Labor Export and Neoliberalism

This country is one of the great labor exporters of the world. Some 11 percent of its total population and 22 percent its working age population are now migrant workers in other countries.   With remittances now totaling some $20 billion a year, the Philippines places fourth as a recipient of remittances, after China, India, and Mexico.

The country’s role as a labor exporter cannot be divorced from the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.  The labor export program began in the mid-seventies as a temporary program under the Marcos dictatorship, with a relatively small number of workers involved—some 50,000.  The ballooning of the program to encompass some 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 government of resources for capital expenditures that could act as an engine of economic growth since some 20 to 40 per cent of the budget was allocated yearly 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.

The dynamics of the labor export phenomenon, however, cannot be understood solely in terms of the impact of neoliberal structural adjustment.  It is intimately related to the accelerated process of globalization, or the integration of production and markets, since the 1980s.

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 19th century, however, the freer flow of commodities and capital has not been accompanied by a freer movement of labor globally in the current phase of globalization.  After all, the centers of the global economy—both the old sites of accumulation like Europe and the United States and the dynamic new sites like the Gulf states—have imposed ever-tighter restrictions on migration from 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 Middle East as Labor Destination

The number of migrants worldwide grew from 36 million in 1991 to around 191 million in 2005.  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.

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 US multinational service provider Aramark.  What is actually happening is the expansion of a system of labor trafficking that is just as big and as 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 16thcentury.

This expansive system that creates, maintains, and expands unfree labor is best illustrated in the case of the Middle East, now the main destination of OFWs

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, some 64 per cent 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.

Labor Trafficking

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, which are often in cahoots not only with Middle East employers but also with the US Defense Department and US private contractors, have found ways of getting around these regulations.

There have developed clandestine networks to smuggle workers from the Southern Philippines to destinations in the Middle East.  From interviews with domestic workers in Damascus, we were able to construct the following clandestine route:  people told of being smuggled out of 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.  It was only after two months that they were finally transported by plane from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, then to Damascus, where they found themselves in the midst of a civil war!

With such illegal transnational human smuggling networks in operation, it is not surprising that of the nine thousand domestic workers in Syria, the Embassy estimated that 90 per cent 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 in 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 in the US bases by the Pentagon and US military contractors, but 10,000 is probably a conservative number.   In the case of Afghanistan, the collusion between illegal labor traffickers, the US government, and US private contractors poses a gargantuan challenge to the weak Philippine state.

Intersection of Labor and Sex Trafficking

The predominance of women among the workers being trafficked to the Middle East has created a situation rife with sexual abuse, and a system whereby labor trafficking and sexual trafficking are increasingly intersecting.  Here is an excerpt from a report of the House Committee on Overseas Workers 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 can go further and say that there is a strong element of sex trafficking in the trafficking of Filipino women into the Middle East given the expectation, especially in many Gulf households, that providing sex to the master of the household is seen as part of the domestic worker’s tasks.

In sum, the creation of the labor-export economy in countries like the Philippines stemmed greatly from the impact of structural adjustment, trade liberalization, and the prioritization of debt repayment, policies that led to industrialization, the erosion of local agriculture, and the gutting of state investment, disabling it as an engine of growth.  Moreover, the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism have led to the creation of a global system of labor trafficking, reinforcing the insight of Immanuel Wallerstein that the development of capitalist relations of production does not, in many cases, displace but reinforce or promote the spread of unfree labor.  This includes not only new centers of capital accumulation like the Middle East but also old centers like the United States.