TraffLab (ERC) is a five-year interdisciplinary research project, led by Prof. Hila Shamir, at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, that pursues a theoretical, methodological, and normative paradigm shift in the research and policy on human trafficking. The project moves away from the currently predominant approach to trafficking, which focuses on criminal law, border control, and human rights, toward a labor-based approach that targets the structure of labor markets that are prone to severely exploitative labor practices.
The project aims to transform the way trafficking is researched and, as a result, the way anti-trafficking policy is devised, by unsettling and replacing three prevailing assumptions in existing work on anti-trafficking: first, challenging assumptions about agency and victimhood – shifting the perspective to the potential agency of workers; second, re-conceptualizing exploitation in the context of trafficking – from an exceptional crime to a phenomenon that is paradigmatic of precarious labor market practices in a globalized economy; third, shifting attention from the individuated anti-trafficking instruments of criminal law, border control, and human rights toward the structural, labor-market-based means of reducing vulnerability to exploitation.
The Tel Aviv University Buchmann Faculty of Law Magazine [English]
What is a Labor Perspective to Human Trafficking?
We use the term “labor” broadly to signify an approach that focuses on market inequalities between employers and employees, and that may ultimately devise ways to level the bargaining playing field. Our motivating hypothesis is that human trafficking is better understood as predominantly an issue of economic labor-market exploitation, and should therefore be studied by employing the analytical tools of distributive market inequalities, and will best be combatted using the policy tools of labor rights.
Adopting a labor approach shifts the focus away from individual harms to the power disparities between victims and traffickers and the economic and social conditions that make individuals vulnerable to trafficking in a globalized economy, with a sensitivity to both local institutional variations and global economic forces.
Our Research: A New Anti-Trafficking Tool Kit
The project seeks to map and explore structures that cause workers’ vulnerability to trafficking and to study and develop innovative labor-based anti-trafficking tools. Clearly, labor-based anti-trafficking policies that seek to impact the balance of bargaining power between workers and employers need to be context-sensitive. The various components contributing to worker vulnerability can vary from country to country and from sector to sector. Thus, anti-trafficking policy may need to take into account both the specific employment patterns in a given labor sector and the de jure and de facto legal regimes in a given country. The research in this project is therefore context specific and uses a case study methodology.
The case studies include a qualitative analysis of innovative measures - not traditionally, but increasingly, thought of as being related to anti-trafficking– which are employed in different jurisdictions. The research focuses mostly on initiatives in migrant-receiving countries where exploitation of workers occurs. We focus on four main legal tools that when put together, cover private and public, local and global, labor and capital, to map the matrix of labor-based interventions in the sphere of human trafficking. We believe that the insights from these case studies will enable the creation of an enhanced and improved anti-trafficking tool kit. The four legal tools we examine are bilateral labor agreements, national protective legislation, unionization and alt-labor, and corporate responsibility.
Bilateral Labor Agreements
Bilateral agreements between migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries are increasingly used to restructure recruitment practices in order to uproot the conditions that create vulnerability to trafficking. This is done primarily by attempting to enable workers to exit exploitative employment relationships. However, bilateral labor agreements vary significantly from one another, and share distinct limitations. Here we ask whether, how, and when can bilateral agreements increase workers’ bargaining power and improve their working conditions, and whether they can serve as effective anti-trafficking tools.
Some countries are beginning to expand the reach of national legislation beyond criminalization toward ensuring decent working conditions in sectors prone to trafficking, as well as toward safe and fair recruitment practices. One promising path is the introduction of legislation aimed at regulating migration intermediaries, for example, by creating recruitment agency registries or limiting recruitment fees. Another focuses on applicability and enforcement of workers’ rights in sectors prone to trafficking. The project studies such legislation in various contexts with a focus on common regulatory practices, and examines some of the most effective examples mapping success and limitations.
Unionization and Alt-Labor
Organizing campaigns of vulnerable migrant workers in sectors prone to trafficking may provide workers with a voice in the workplace, allowing workers not only the ability to leave exploitative employers, but also to remain with their employers and improve their work environments. Such campaigns include both traditional unionization efforts, as well as new forms of workers’ coalitions and workers’ centers that fall outside of traditional labor law methods. Here we seek to understand the limits and powers of traditional unions in assisting groups of particularly vulnerable workers, and whether and how alt-labor can prove a useful alternative.
Corporate Responsibility (CR)
The project studies voluntary codes of conduct adopted by employers and recruitment agencies to combat human trafficking, and asks whether these are encouraged by national policies. We are particularly interested in the new trend toward mandatory transparency legislation: laws that require companies of a certain size to publicly disclose the actions they are taking to address human trafficking, or more widely, modern-day slavery. We inquire as to the impact of anti-trafficking CR, how this impact is measured and by whom, the goals that companies set for themselves and how these goals are informed by workers’ interests, including through the promising alternative that worker-led initiatives offer. We are also interested in tracing the anti-trafficking industry and ‘anti-trafficking chains’ that develop into lucrative businesses of their own around such new disclosure practices, and their impact on workers' rights.
The Workers' Rights Legal Clinic at TAU Law serves as a ‘clinical legal laboratory’ for the study of labor-based anti-trafficking tools. In the clinic, lawyers represent individual clients, assist in unionization, argue precedential cases to the Israeli Supreme Court, and initiate discussions with policy-makers and professionals, to promote a labor approach to human trafficking in the Israeli context. At the same time, the clinic enables participatory research and a deeper understanding of the strength and limits of a labor approach to trafficking.
Interested in joining TraffLab?
Call for Applications
We currently have an open call for applications for visiting researcher positions for the next academic year (October 2021-October 2022). Applications for visiting researchers are reviewed on a rolling basis. Further details are available here.