Domestic workers celebrate the passing of Convention 189 on Domestic Workers at the ILO's 100th Session in Geneva in 2011. Photo: © International Labour Organization
Human Rights – A strategy for doing nothing
On 3 February Dr Aidan McQuaid, Director of Anti-Slavery International, published a Blog on Touchstone which pinpointed the inadequacies of the draft Modern Slavery Bill. Perhaps the key flaw being the failure to make statutory provisions for victims. This failure to provide such statutory rights for victims could be an oversight – although now it’s been pointed out to them you would expect them to make amends! Far from being an oversight however I would argue that it is the product of an indefensible attitude to human rights. What is the evidence?
At the moment on the Government’s desk is not only the Modern Slavery Bill but ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers and the proposal for a ILO Protocol to effectively amend the Forced Labour Convention 1930. If one reads across these then a distinct pattern emerges.
The ILO Convention on Domestic Workers is probably the better known of these legal instruments and indeed the British Governments failure to support the Convention and ratify it has previously been discussed on Touchstone. That the British Government and that of the Czech Republic were the only EU governments to abstain on the vote for the Convention. How then did the British Government seek to justify a position which was out of kilter with virtually every other Government in the EU, be they of the left or right.
First of all it should be noted that the British Government had no objective to a voluntaristic approach to tackling the abuse of domestic workers. They were happy to support a non-legally binding Recommendation on Domestic Workers but baulked at a Convention whose breach they could be held to account for. Essentially they justified their abstention on two grounds. Firstly, a variant of British exceptionalism. Bad things happen abroad but not in Britain. Therefore while they would not vote in favour they would not vote against, because they did not want to block a Convention which might be used to combat bad things in foreign countries. They also said that they would not vote in favour because they had no intention of ratifying it. This is the sort of moral high ground a defendant might seek in telling the judge before sentence, that they have no intention of mending their ways and should be rewarded for their honesty!
In fighting off Convention 189 the British Government argued that there was no evidence that there was significant abuse of domestic workers in Britain and certainly not enough to warrant putting more Bills through Parliament. Of course to maintain such a position you have to ignore the evidence of the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of domestic workers presented by such groups as Kalayaan. Or even more offensively claim it’s not significant!
The Government claimed this lack of abuse was because UK laws gave effective protection to workers including Domestic Workers. The Government referred amongst other laws to those on Trafficking. Trafficking laws and procedures which are and as written in the Modern Slavery Bill will be, woefully inadequate.
Turning to the proposed ILO Protocol on Forced Labour, the same fundamental political positions and arguments emerge. An ILO protocol is an amendment to an existing Convention – in this case Convention 29 on Forced Labour from 1930. A Protocol therefore legally binds all those who have ratified the Convention it amends. The UK ratified the Convention in 1931. Low and behold the British Government will not support the proposed text as a Protocol but is happy to do so if it is put forward as a non-binding Recommendation. Elsewhere the British Government has responded that, existing laws or the new Modern Slavery Bill will combat forced labour without the need for the Protocol.
One section of the Protocol would commit countries to undertake programmes to promote freedom of association, collective bargaining and to support the organisation of at-risk groups in trade unions and other relevant organisations. So nonplussed or indeed horrified by this the Government has made no attempt to argue against the proposal but has merely stated:
“..the UK Government would not support any Protocol placing legal requirement on member states, in particular requiring the UK to set up formal processes for collective bargaining and industrial relations”
Looking across the broader picture I believe a pattern emerges which amounts to a strategy for doing nothing – or perhaps as little as possible.
- Do not oppose measures meant to tackle forms of human abuse – which is a difficult position to defend.
- Claim British exceptionalism – whilst such abuse is widespread in other countries it’s hardly heard of here.
- If evidence is presented to the contrary either ignore it or suggest a bit of abuse is preferable to the difficulties of putting a Bill through Parliament.
- Give a reason why such abuse is so rare in Britain – we have all these excellent laws which deal with these issues and quote some inadequate law which in itself does not commit Government to a great deal.
- Finally,if faced with bodies like the ILO who ultimately want to interfere in UK law, make sure what you agree to is not legally binding. Agreeing to a voluntary code/recommendation shows your heart is in the right place but means you don’t have to do anything about it!