The strength of political ideas and arguments can only be tested through the most difficult and intractable problems. Any politician with a pea-size brain can provide pseudo-solutions for trivial, everyday issues. The though problems, on the other hand, separate true solutions from political public relations marketing campaigns. The forced labour issue is one of such problems.
If you want to understand a problem in its worst-case scenario the best way to do it is through the eyes of the people with vested interests; particularly in keeping their bureaucratic jobs. If it is a matter of labour and this matter is international, head to the website of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In there you will find an article stating that "21 million people are now victims of forced labour". In this article you will find several statistical estimates and imposing graphs.
Before we discuss the issue, we need to understand what exactly is considered to be "forced labour". For that, there is a handy definition in the C029 - Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No.29) which can also be found in the ILO website. It states:
"forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."
This definition is, of course, nonsensical in the best tradition that it is to be expected from socialistic bureaucrats that have no idea of the topic at hand. Let's take a closer look.
For work not to be considered forced or compulsory labour there should be no penalty whatsoever and it must be based on a voluntary offer. This means that every single job on the planet is, in fact, forced labour. How come? Simple. If you don't perform your job you will be fired. This is a penalty and by definition you operate under it. Why is it a penalty? Because it is clearly not a reward. It can only be one or the other. Another issue. If you don't perform your job to the contracted standards, you will be fined somehow. This is yet another penalty under which you operate.
And then we have the issue of "voluntary". So if a person operates under the "menace of any penalty" but it does so "voluntarily", this is not forced labour. The question then becomes what exactly is the definition of "voluntary"? Well, we don't know because the C029 document does not define it. Because of this non-definition we enter into the murky world of Judicial definitions where "voluntary" opposes "coerced". Something is voluntary when not coerced. But coercion comes in many forms. For example, if somebody forces you at gunpoint to work for them, it is clearly coercion. If you are starving and somebody offers you a job under harsh penalties. You accept. Have you been "coerced" by the circumstances? Most certainly! You are out of a job and you will lose your house for lack of mortgage payments. You accept a job under the same conditions. Is your acceptance voluntary? Of course not! Your daughter wants a new dress. You take a second job under harsh penalties to pay for it. Have you been coerced? Certainly! The question is then: at which point coercion becomes non-coercion? Well… we don't know and the ILO certainly does not either and for that matter Justice is equally clueless.
This definition of forced labour makes no sense because by definition contractual arrangements are coercions. Somebody or something coerce us to exchange something for something else. If coercion would not exist we would have no need to exchange anything. We would be contempt. Contracts also carry penalties (explicit or implicit) precisely to ensure compliance to it. If a contract is un-enforceable it is pointless.
The means of coercion are defined as overt and covert. Overt ones are the obvious ones: armed guards and chains. They may indeed qualify as "involuntary". However, they are the fewest by far. Covert ones on the other hand, are more subtle such as the confiscation of government identity papers, threats of denunciation to authorities, economic servitude, etc.). The problem with this kind of coercion is that they work precisely because there is a government which makes it possible. If government would not exist there would be no need to carry identity papers nor the fear of being denunciated nor being locked in an economically poor geographic location due to immigration policies.
The fine print
But then we have the fine print. The following is a summary of what it is not considered to be forced labour:
- Work extracted through compulsory military service
- Work which are part of the normal civic obligations
- Work extracted as a consequence of a conviction
- Work extracted in case of an emergency
- Minor communal services
The manner in which these exceptions (and subsequent articles) are written is such that they boil down to this: the competent authority (i.e. the politicians in charge) can do whatever they want to do as long as appearances of public good or benefit are maintained. The articles are sufficiently vague and subject to interpretation and re-definition as to be pointless (as is to be expected from an international convention).
In summary, the government can and will subject people to forced labour under a variety of excuses and there is nothing you can do about it. In other words, forced labour is OK if it is imposed by the government.
ILO's website provides us with an array of statistics which were collected through their methodology described in the document "ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour - Results and methodology". As statistical methods goes, the methodology is not bad… however…the old rule applies: garbage-in garbage-out. It is not the methodology that is suspect but the source of the raw data. This data is hectic to say the least, including media reports, NGO information, government documents, data from international organizations, academic reports, ILO's own report, trade unions report's, etc. ILO's methodology applies a nonsensical definition to highly suspect, hectic, heterogeneous (i.e. mixed) data and comes up with a neat report. It's like taking oats and producing a delicious five course meal with desert. We should at least be extremely cautious of such results.
Results are expected and unexpected. The expected results are that there is more forced labour in underdeveloped regions than in developed ones and also that women are more prevalent than man. The unexpected result is that even in developed nations (North America and EU) there is a fair amount forced labour.
These results clearly point to government action as the primary enabler of the problem. In underdeveloped regions government action prevents free market and free migration. As such standards of living cannot rise nor can people migrate to better economic geographic locations. In developed regions, governments are used as the source of threat in the form of imprisonment or deportation for coercive methods.
This is not to say that the entire statistical set can be dismissed; it cannot. There clearly is coerced labour going on in the world, however, the amount of it is dubious at best and its source, its root cause can typically be found in government action.
OUR POINT OF VIEW
Why is this concept of "forced labour" important? Because as Absolute Austro-Libertarians our primary rule is that relationships between people (of any kind) must be voluntary (see for example Contracts Are The Key To Coexistence ). The concept of "forced labour" implies "involuntary". Under such conditions there can be no valid contractual arrangement and therefore whichever party is responsible for infringing other people's property it is also fully responsible for the full extent of the infringement. It is for this very reason that we reject all the "exemptions" to the Convention. Anything and everything that is not a voluntary agreement is in infringement of other peoples' rights, regardless of who is causing it. To accept an infringement from the government and not from private parties is pure cynicism and hypocrisy.
However, we must be clear in stating that for us as long as a contract is voluntary anything goes. This fact alone dispenses with much of the issues and means currently at the disposal of people controlling and creating forced labour. All government-related issues are gone. This leaves only two coercion points: the economy and brute force. Let's deal with one at the time.
To enforce forced labour using brute force (i.e. guards, weapons, chains, torture, etc.) would be suicidal in an Absolute Austro-Libertarian environment. This would be so because the economic infringement of private property would be so large that all private contract enforcement agencies and would be salivating for a piece of this kind of business. This is not as farfetched as it seems. Today the equivalent can be found in lawyers that advertise for injuries, wrongful termination of employment and other lucrative opportunities. They always go after the deeper pocket. And organization enforcing forced labour by force would be in the worst possible situation: deep pockets and very large reparations. In other words, a juicy target. Hence, in our system although forced labour controlled by brute force may exist, this eventuality is exceedingly improbable. This is not the case today where the people who own "slaves" simply bribes the authorities. This is possible because there are a limited number of authorities and are indeed cheap to bribe. This would not be the case in or system whereby there would be a large supply of independent organizations looking to make a large profit. It would be impossible to bribe them all. Furthermore, if child labour was present, this would make breaking and liberating such children an absolute windfall in monetary terms. There you have it; the most vulnerable are the most protected ones. Automatically and efficiently. No government necessary.
We are typically talking about indebted servitude under this scenario. A person signs a contract whereby the expenditures are greater than the earnings and hence this person is literally a contractual slave to the other contracting party. Such contracts exist today throughout the world and prosper because of the other, physical, coercion elements. If you actually study the places where this occurs, you will notice that in those places are typically surrounded by heavy "security" where guards, dogs, fences and lock-down processes and procedures are utilized heavily. However, none of these processes or procedures can be used in an Absolute Austro-Libertarian system because they would fall under the brute force coercion type. This only leaves the contractual arrangement. But as with any other contract, it can be broken. Under our system a person breaking such contract would lose all their rights to the other contracting party but not to other parties. This means that a person can simply walk away, break the contract and find another way to pay it off. In other words, the contracting party would have to bring the contract breaker back in order to extract value from his/her work but at the same time having to maintain and keep this person's body and mind in normal conditions not to infringe in their right to own his/her body. In other words, it would get very expensive very rapidly. It would be much cheaper to simply settle with the contract breaker and move on. However, other indebted servants seeing this being the case, would probably choose the same solution making the whole concept of indebted servitude not economically viable.
But there is one more element to consider. In an Absolute Autro-Libertarian system free trade and free movement of people will ensure much higher standards of living for everybody, which will make economic forced labour coercion simply impractical.
In summary, in an Absolute Austro-Libertarian system "forced labour" would simply not exist because it would be prohibitively expensive. If money really talks, we believe that in this case it is screaming.
The issue of "forced labour" exists simply because governments exist. Governments are the ultimate enablers that make "forced labour" possible. They provide the necessary elements for coercion and at the same time fail miserably in enforcing the laws when they don't enslave people themselves. It is time for a different system. It is time for Libertarianism and Austrian Economics. Then again, if you prefer more of the same, it is entirely your choice.
Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.