Neoliberal Policies and Human Trafficking for Labor: Free Markets, Unfree Workers?

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18yPA0W6a0FJhR/input 710339PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917710339Political Research QuarterlyPeksen et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 673 –686
Neoliberal Policies and Human
© 2017 University of Utah
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Trafficking for Labor: Free
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917710339
Markets, Unfree Workers?
Dursun Peksen1, Shannon Lindsey Blanton2,
and Robert G. Blanton2
While the economic benefits of neoliberalism are widely noted, its impact upon human security is contentious,
particularly in the area of equity and economic rights. In this article, we examine the impact of free-market policies
upon a particularly egregious abuse of human and labor rights, trafficking in forced and child labor. Drawing from
relevant scholarship on market liberalization and human trafficking, we posit that policies that promote market
deregulation, reduced state size, and global economic openness are positively related to trafficking of child and
forced labor. To test these claims, we combine data on three main facets of pro-market policies—a “business-
friendly” regulatory environment, reduced state size, and policies favoring global economic openness—with data on
human trafficking for forced and child labor. We find that economic liberalization in general significantly increases
the likelihood of human trafficking for labor purposes. Our results further suggest that among the three facets of
neoliberal policies, a market-friendly regulatory environment has the most significant impact upon labor trafficking.
Overall, our results point to a conflict between the universally professed aversion to human trafficking and the
dominant neoliberal approach to economic policy.
human trafficking, forced labor, labor rights, neoliberalism, globalization
The spread of neoliberal norms has arguably been “the
Blanton, and Peksen 2015; Blanton and Peksen 2016; see
defining feature of the late twentieth century” (Simmons,
also Abouharb and Cingranelli 2007).
Dobbin, and Garrett 2006, 781) as states have increas-
To better understand the consequences of neoliberal
ingly embraced free-market policies in an effort to spur
policies for human rights, we examine the relationship
innovation and economic growth (e.g., Blanton and
between market-friendly policies and a particularly
Blanton 2012; Wolf 2004). Yet despite the economic ben-
egregious violation of labor rights, trafficking in forced
efits of neoliberal policies, their effect on human security
and child labor. At its foundation, labor trafficking
has been criticized, especially as it pertains to economic
exploits economic vulnerability and brings the poten-
rights and equity. Neoliberal orthodoxy is disparaged for
tial human rights costs of neoliberalism into stark focus.
failing to improve the lives of the majority of the global
Indeed, some posit that market-friendly policies “have
population in part because free-market policies are seen
reshaped the lower rungs of the global labor market” in
as placing little emphasis on addressing people’s needs
its entirety, and unfree labor is “deeply embedded in the
and reducing the vulnerability of the poor (Blanton,
labor market shifts associated with neoliberal capital-
Blanton, and Peksen 2015; Rudra 2008). Some even posit
ism” (LeBaron 2015, 3; see also Barrientos, Kothari,
that strict adherence to neoliberalism “poses a direct
and Phillips 2013). Along these lines, the use of
threat to human rights,” as the sole focus on economic
efficiency and competitiveness can “make it extremely
difficult for all countries . . . to provide adequate protec-
University of Memphis, TN, USA
2University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA
tion for a wide range of rights” (Goodhart 2009, 373).
Indeed, while extant literature paints a positive picture of
Corresponding Author:
the economic impact of neoliberalism (Hall and Lawson
Robert G. Blanton, Department of Government, University of
Alabama at Birmingham, University Parkway, HHB 423, Birmingham,
2014), the human rights effects of these policies are
AL 35223, USA.
mixed, especially in the area of labor rights (Blanton,

Political Research Quarterly 70(3)
trafficked labor can be viewed as a pernicious outcome
Trafficking and Economic
of the pursuit of efficiency and lower cost across global
supply chains, as labor becomes virtually cost-free
(Bales 1999).
As defined by the United Nations in 2000, human traf-
Our focus on labor trafficking also serves to enhance
ficking entails
understanding of human trafficking in general, which
includes labor as well as sex and organ trafficking.
the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt
of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other
Although human trafficking is estimated to be the third
forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of
largest illicit market in the global economy (United
the abuse of power . . . for the purpose of exploitation
Nations [UN] 2014), it remains “one of the least studied
[including prostitution, forced labor, or the removal of
forms of international movement in persons” (Akee
organs]. (UN 2000, 2)
et al. 2014, 349). Of the empirical work on the causes of
human trafficking, some focus more narrowly on spe-
We focus on one of the largest subsets of trafficking, and
cific policy issues such as the legalization of prostitu-
the type most clearly connected with global supply
tion (Cho, Dreher, and Neumayer 2013). Other work
chains, namely, trafficking for the purposes of forced and
examines economic and cultural factors, including
child labor. As originally articulated in International
domestic conflict and ethnic fragmentation (Akee et al.
Labour Organization (ILO 2014, 4) Convention 29,
2010), social globalization (Cho 2013), poverty (Jac-
forced labor characterizes both adults and children in
Kucharski 2012), and women’s rights (Rao and Presenti
conditions where “the work was involuntary as a result of
2012). A smaller body of literature has focused on the
force, fraud or deception, and a penalty or threat of a pen-
issue of forced labor, in particular the impact of trade
alty was used to coerce them or their parents.”
openness and the role of global supply chains (LeBaron
Labor trafficking makes up a substantial portion of
2015; Neumayer and De Soysa 2007). By focusing on
total trafficking flows. The use of forced and child labor
how free-market policies affect human trafficking for
is estimated to be a $150 billion a year business (ILO
labor, we provide a broader and more comprehensive
2014). Labor trafficking constitutes at least 40 percent of
view of how states’ policy choices—namely, the pro-
all trafficking incidents (United Nations Office on Drugs
pensity to encourage free-market conditions and partici-
and Crime [UNODC] 2014) and roughly 80 percent (ILO
pation in the global economy—affect one of the “dark
2014, 7) of worldwide slavery. While about a tenth of
sides of globalization” (Cho, Dreher, and Neumayer
such labor is state imposed in such forms as penal servi-
2013, 67).
tude or forced agricultural work—in countries such as
Specifically, we construct four hypotheses that North Korea and Uzbekistan, respectively—the vast
assess the impact of neoliberalism in general, as well as
majority is carried out by private actors, which is the pri-
three specific aspects of market liberalization, on labor
mary focus of our analysis.
trafficking. Drawing from extant literature on neoliber-
Although there are many factors that account for the
alism and human trafficking, we posit that a “business-
expansion of labor trafficking since the 1990s, we posit
friendly” regulatory environment, reduced government
that free-market policies provide a critical underlying
size, and policies favoring economic openness are posi-
mechanism that accounts, in part, for the flourishing of
tively associated with labor trafficking. To test these
this phenomenon. While the link between neoliberal pol-
hypotheses, we use data from the Economic Freedom
icy and trafficking has not been explored in a comprehen-
Index, which provides comprehensive, multifaceted
sive, systematic manner, extant literature does provide
measures of market-friendly policies (Gwartney, some expectations for the ways in which these policies
Lawson, and Hall 2014). Our measures of labor traf-
might affect the pervasiveness of labor trafficking.
ficking—forced labor and child forced labor—are
Analyses of human trafficking writ large often differ-
drawn from Frank (2013), who provides comprehen-
entiate between push factors that increase the supply of
sive data on different types of trafficking for the years
potential trafficking victims in source countries or pull
2000 through 2011. We find that neoliberal policies sig-
factors that increase demand in prospective destinations.
nificantly increase the likelihood of labor trafficking.
We posit that the linkages between neoliberal policies and
Within the neoliberal policy “playbook,” we find that
labor trafficking are common to all countries where labor
policies promoting market deregulation have the stron-
trafficking exists, as these policies have a permissive role
gest impact upon both measures of labor trafficking. A
in the use...

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