VOLUME 03 NUMBER 01 & 02

An interview with Ms. Urmila Bhoola, the UN Special Rapporteur on
Contemporary forms of Slavery

“The situation of women and children is a key challenge which requires immediate and effective action,” said Ms. Urmila Bhoola in an exclusive interview just after she was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery by the Human Rights Council, United Nations. Ms. Bhoola who is a well-known judge from South Africa talked to Anjuman Begum, a human rights defender from India, currently associated with the Asian Human Rights Commission.

In this interview Urmila Bhoola tries to elaborate her past engagement in rule of law issues and her thoughts for her future work as a mandate holder of the UN HRC.

Excerpts from the interview:

Anjuman Begum (AB): Tell us why the exploitation of labour and slavery remains an issue even today?

Urmila Bhoola ( UB) : One of the reasons is the lack of compliance with international norms and standards, including the UN Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and the Supplementary Convention, as well as the ILO Conventions on Forced Labour and the Abolition of Forced Labour. Economic factors (particularly in the Asia Pacific where, according to an ILO report, about 11 million of the 21 million people estimated to be in forced labour are located) also play a role as many vulnerable people are forced to migrate to urban areas or across countries in search of employment and economic opportunities, and end up being trafficked, exploited or subjected to forced labour or other forms of slavery. In many countries in the Asia Pacific region there is little regulation or monitoring of these situations, and corruption, lack of access to justice are also factors which perpetuate exploitation. Global supply chains outsource production to developing countries and there is lack of accountability for compliance with labour standards. There is also exploitation by private employers who subject vulnerable women, men and children to forced labour and other conditions of employment which amount to slavery, for example in domestic work, agriculture and other areas that are hidden and difficult to identify. Recruitment agents have also been identified as key contributors to forced labour and slavery conditions, and migration is often not regulated by MOUs between receiving and sending countries, or where it is there are means of evasion. There are therefore a myriad global political, economic and social factors that drive increased migration and create opportunities for trafficking and labour exploitation.

AB: Under what legal or extra-legal circumstances are labour exploitation permitted?

UB: Very limited circumstances, for instance prison labour, are permitted as acceptable forms of forced labour.

AB: Do you see loopholes in the existing system of international labour laws?

UB: There needs to be greater coherence in the legal framework, and in ensuring accountability by governments and the private sector. More effective remedies for violations need to be created, as well as greater accountability for vigilance and extra territorial application of laws.

AB: How is globalisation contributing in exploitation of labour??

UB: Globalisation has led to the free movement of capital, goods and resources, but has also increased poverty. Rapid urbanisation is occurring, people are displaced from land, agriculture and biodiversity is challenged, decent work is reduced and many people are forced into the informal sector and into precarious conditions of work in order to survive. The factors which drive economic growth and market liberalisation, for instance in the Asia Pacific region, emphasise profit above human rights and permits exploitation of the vulnerable. Global supply chains make it difficult to monitor and hold business accountable for human rights and labour law violations. For instance, the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh occurred because global supply chains outsourced garment manufacturing to entrepreneurs who did not comply with safety and labour standards. There must be a global commitment to scrutinise and eradicate slavery and forced labour..

AB: When you took up the responsibility as a judge in a labour court, what were the prominent issues related to labour in South Africa?

UB: South Africa has a constitutional guarantee of the right to strike and fair labour practices, as well as effective regulation. Strong unions and civil society have always been a feature of our democracy. However, challenges of increasing inequality and poverty, lack of basic services, increased and new forms of discrimination, violations of human rights, and increased gender based violence have resulted in increased social and political conflict. The Marikana massacre of 39 striking workers in 2012 reflects the decline in the labour relations and the levels of violence against workers. This is increasing rivalry between unions in the mining sector for example, which has led to increased xenophobia as well as a breakdown in systems of collective bargaining.

AB: Tell us about the gender aspects in labour issues in South Africa?

UB: Gender equality remains a key challenge for South Africa. Although there is increased representation of women in employment and occupations, most women continue to be marginalised by poverty and excluded from decent work and limited opportunities to earn a living wage, as well as still bear the burden of unpaid care work. Gender based violence remains a major problem and although there is comprehensive legal protection, law enforcement is a problem which is exacerbated by social and cultural discrimination based on gender.

AB: What were the challenges you faced as a judge?

UB: Applying the labour laws in socio- political and economic systems that are so weighted against workers because of widening gaps between rich and poor, growing inequality, rapid urbanisation and migration, as well as cost of living increases and continued disparities in access to basic needs like housing. The increasing challenges to the rule of law are reflected in many illegal strikes in the mining industry. During the post-apartheid South Africa my law firm was involved in setting up institutional mechanisms for collective bargaining and labour dispute resolution, which have largely been undermined by the current challenges to the labour relations and legal framework.

AB: Moving to Asia, do you see a difference in the trend of labour exploitation than that of South Africa?

UB: There are more challenges in Asia given the economic and political Challenges. South Africa has effective regulation and a coherent labour law framework. In Asia we are dealing with vast numbers of people and open borders with increasing migration and urbanisation, corruption and governance issues, and the lack of regulation which make exploitation very difficult to detect and prosecute.

AB: In India, practices like bonded labour still continue. What would be your suggestion?

UB: This requires investigation and co- operation from the government, as well as the political will and resources to eradicate bonded labour. Government, unions and corporate sector collaboration will lead to effective mechanisms for identification, prosecution and redress.

AB: With your new mandate at the UN, what are your thoughts and how would you contribute to the issues of slavery?

UB: I am committed to continuing the work undertaken my by predecessor, Gulnara Shahinian, to identify practices of contemporary slavery over the world and to ensure their effective eradication with the necessary government, unions and business co-operation. The ILO is developing greater coherence in labour standards with effective remedies and this need to be supported. The recommendations made by my predecessor have to be followed up and monitored, and situations of continued slavery in various countries identified and acted upon. The situation of women and children is a key challenge which requires immediate and effective action and I am committed to doing this.