Rise in forced labour expected amid the Covid-19 economic crisis

COMMENT

Against the backdrop of South Africa’s poor economic prognosis, the practice of forced labour is set to rise in the coming months and years. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. 

Forced labour is a type of human trafficking, defined under the Prevention and Combatting of Trafficking in Persons Act. Other types of human trafficking under this Act include sex trafficking, forced marriages and domestic servitude.

Under the Act, forced labour, which exclusively affects the most poor and vulnerable, is defined as: “Labour or services of a person obtained or maintained (a) without the consent of that person; and (b) through threats or perceived threats of harm, the use of force, intimidation or other forms of coercion, or physical restraint to that person or another person.”

The United States Trafficking In Persons Report (2019) has listed South Africa as a source, transit and destination country. This means that victims are sourced from South Africa, moved around and through South Africa and also exploited right here.

The covert and ever-changing nature of the crime makes it hard to quantify and extremely tricky to detect. Even though credible statistics are in short supply,  the recruitment practices of traffickers seem to follow a fairly similar pattern.  Recruiters prey on vulnerability, and in South Africa this often presents as economic desperation, low levels of education and poor implementation of migrant rights. 

With a struggling labour market, characterised by extremely high levels of unemployment and a large supply of low-skilled labour, large portions of the population are desperate job seekers. In the 2018 round of the South African Reconciliation Barometer, a nationally representative opinion survey run by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 61% of South Africans have, for example, indicated that they occasionally or often go without a cash income.  

It is through false promises of a better life, often presented as job or educational opportunities, that traffickers ensnare their victims.

Forced labourers are often found in the agricultural sector, specifically on fruit and vegetable farms as well as on fishing boats. South African and foreign African women are increasingly forced into domestic servitude situations where they do unpaid housework, are unable to leave the property unsupervised, and in the case of foreign nationals, their documents are withheld. To a lesser extent, foreign shop owners have been found to force co-nationals into working in their shops with no pay. Forced begging syndicates are also considered a form of forced labour.

Within the context of Covid-19, rising employer distress and new economic vulnerability has exposed people to a greater risk of being fraudulently recruited and coerced into labour and traffickers may be in a position to expand their operations. 

It is imperative, now more than ever, that policymakers respond to the growing crisis of forced labour. 


In the long run, prevention is the best cure. Prevention for a crime of this nature is best addressed through diminishing the structural drivers or root causes that make people vulnerable to being coerced by traffickers. These include poverty, barriers to education, slow economic growth and structural unemployment. 

In the medium- to short-run, the department of labour — a mandated role via the National Policy Framework for 2019 — will have to strengthen its enforcement capacity. The department is well placed to identify and intercept transgression, but will require the additional training of labour inspectors. 

Alongside training, problematic or unethical supply chains must be mapped out, followed by widespread education of ethical consumption. Lastly, shortcomings in the criminal justice system should be addressed.  To date,  the policing and prosecution system has failed victims and many traffickers continue to operate with impunity in South Africa. 

Interventions of this nature will disrupt the operations of unethical employers and also increase the risk of using coerced labourers.

The fight against forced labour in South Africa needs to be dynamic and precise. Although government resources may be in short supply, the scale of its challenge to ensure a fair and inclusive labour market is set to grow. 

If you suspect an instance of labour trafficking, please contact the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline on 0800 222 777 for advice on how to proceed. You may remain anonymous. 

Jaynisha Patel is a project officer for the inclusive economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Sarah Child is a qualified social worker who has worked in the anti-human trafficking field for over four years

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Jaynisha Patel
Jaynisha Patel is a project officer for inclusive economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She is the recent co-author of an Afrobarometer paper on how South Africans perceive the cash grants systems, and holds a master’s in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Cape Town
Sarah Child
Sarah Child is a qualified social worker who has worked in the anti-human trafficking field for over four years. She holds a master’s in human rights law from the University of Cape Town
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