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Why definitions matter

  3/12/2014
Summary:Definitions are important in developing reliable data and in guiding action on forced and child labour. They mean we can be held accountable for our efforts to generate change in the name of those who are the most exploited in the world today.
When Candide, of Voltaire’s famous satire, arrived in Lisbon with his teacher Pangloss, he witnessed the horrors of a terrible earthquake. It was the first of a string of life-threatening events, and at the end of his long journey, he reconsidered his teacher’s firm conviction that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. 

Today, as we witness children toiling away in mines and quarries, working on plantations or being sent to work in homes far away from their own, we know that it does not reflect the “best of all possible worlds”. They deserve better, and we call for change. But in order to change, we need to have a shared understanding of what it is we want to change. Problem solving starts with a simple but crucial first step: defining it. For how we define something will determine whether and how we solve it. 

This is why international debates leading to the adoption of new legal instruments require a great deal of time for the deliberation of definitions and concepts. When ILO member States, workers’ and employers’ organizations negotiated a new Convention to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, it took them more than two years before they settled on a definition and adopted the instrument in 1999. 

The Convention makes an important distinction between children who are held in slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, who are trafficked or subjected to forced labour and those in “hazardous work”. All of these forms of child labour must be eliminated within the shortest possible time. The Convention is part of a larger canon of UN and ILO instruments that define slavery, forced labour and trafficking, including the most recent UN Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons. 

Whether these instruments were negotiated in Geneva or Vienna, the drafters agreed that children cannot voluntarily “consent” to exploitation and that free movement does not guarantee free labour. The Conventions enjoy almost universal ratification, and while the definitions may not be perfect, it is a slippery slope to start unpicking them. 

The existence of different legal definitions, which share a great degree of commonality, however, has sometimes created confusion, and there is a risk that any form of exploitation is now called “slavery” or “trafficking”. Such “exploitation creep”, as legal scholar Janie A. Chuang put it, labels certain practices as more extreme than is legally accurate. In other words, not all children who are exposed to hazardous work are “slaves”, and not all workers who don’t receive a fair wage are forced. 

Certainly, to call something “slavery” helps to raise attention and to galvanize action. But will it help the world’s poor and distressed to end their misery? The answer is no. Ending slavery or forced labour requires targeted action to change laws, to bring offenders to justice, to protect victims and to empower those at risk. While some measures of prevention, such as eliminating abusive recruitment and wage payment systems or enabling children to attend school, can go a long way in addressing systemic problems of injustice, much more is needed to ensure decent work for all. Hence, definitions help to narrow down a problem and to target action. 

Clear definitions are also necessary for measuring change. Only if we quantify a problem are we able to understand whether it decreases or increases over time, and whether we are on the right path solving it. Some problems are easier to measure than others, and everyone would agree that measuring “slavery” poses myriad challenges. The hidden nature of the problem, political sensitivities and ethical considerations make it very difficult to implement national surveys on the basis of which reliable data can be generated. 

But perhaps the most critical challenge is the different application of internationally agreed definitions at the national level and the lack of common statistical indicators that would allow us to compare data across countries. The Indian Supreme Court, for example, ruled that whoever does not receive the minimum wage is bonded. Does this mean that all such labourers are “slaves”? If the answer is yes, most of today’s migrant workers would be “slaves” too. Or take the example of the Brazilian law against slave labour (“trabalho escravo”) which encompasses the concept of “degrading conditions of work”. How does this compare with “degrading” working conditions in other countries? 

In response to these unresolved questions, the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) established a working group in September last year to develop a common operational definition of forced labour for statistical purposes. This is the first time the ICLS has addressed the issue with the long-term objective to integrate forced labour modules within regular labour force surveys or to implement stand-alone surveys on forced labour. The working group will have to report back to the Conference in 2018. 

A lot can be learned from the process leading to the universal acceptance of the ILO’s definition of “child labour”. The term was highly contested initially, and there was little comparable data. In 2008, the ICLS adopted global measurement standards on child labour. Today, many of the ILO’s member States implement child labour surveys, allowing us to produce reliable global statistics based on a shared understanding of the problem. In October last year, the ILO released new estimates demonstrating that child labour has decreased from 245 million to 168 million over a period of twelve years. 

So definitions matter. They are important in developing reliable data and in guiding our action. Ultimately, they mean we can be held to account for our efforts to generate change in the name of those who are the most exploited in the world today. 


By Beate Andrees, ILO, Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour





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