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Researching Forced Labour in the Global EconomyMethodological Challenges and Advances$

Genevieve LeBaron

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266472

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266472.001.0001

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Confronting Bias in NGO Research on Modern Slavery

Confronting Bias in NGO Research on Modern Slavery

Chapter:
(p.94) 6 Confronting Bias in NGO Research on Modern Slavery
Source:
Researching Forced Labour in the Global Economy
Author(s):

Samuel Okyere

Publisher:
British Academy
DOI:10.5871/bacad/9780197266472.003.0006

Abstract and Keywords

This Chapter explores the extent to which efforts to attain more reliable, comprehensive data and knowledge on forced labour could be impeded by a lack of critical reflexivity in the use of mainstream conventional definitional and conceptual frameworks. Drawing on textual and discourse analysis of dissemination materials from a study of forced labour, the Chapter makes three key contributions. First, it argues that uncritical reliance on mainstream discourses reinforces their dominance and forecloses alternative conceptualisations, interpretations and understandings of the nature, causes and effects of forced labour. Second, the absence of critical reflexivity gives rise to methodological issues that adversely affect research validity, reliability and quality. Third, crucial empirical findings could be distorted or ignored where they contradict conventional discourses, interpretations and frameworks adopted for the research.

Keywords:   forced labour research, politics, bias, conflation, reflexivity

Introduction

ARTICLE 2.1 OF THE ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (recently updated by the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930) defines forced labour as ‘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’. Over the last few years, forced labour has been at the top of international human rights, labour and political agendas, with ongoing efforts to better understand and formulate policy on this phenomenon.

A notable obstacle to these efforts is the paucity of reliable evidence and data on the phenomenon. Forced labour is said to be ‘hard to see, harder to count’ (ILO 2012). Some of the places where conditions deemed to constitute forced labour occur (such as fishing boats, mining and construction sites, plantations, factories and other private premises) are often inaccessible to researchers (Tyldum 2010; Zhang et al. 2014; Penney 2014). Thus, existing forced labour statistics are criticised as being ‘guesstimates’ or figures that may be politically appealing but are inherently unreliable or flawed. The quest for better evidence and data on forced labour is further compounded by conceptual and definitional ambiguities, as various scholars have observed (Farrell et al. 2008; O’Connell Davidson 2006, 2010). The conflation of terminology and interchangeable use of terms such as ‘trafficking’, ‘modern slavery’ and ‘forced labour’ in some studies blurs the boundaries between distinct phenomena (Weitzer 2012; Allain 2012; Chuang 2014; Zhang et al. 2014) and makes uncertain what is actually being studied or measured.

This chapter argues that efforts to produce more comprehensive, reliable knowledge and evidence on forced labour are further hampered by the uncritical application of conventional concepts, frameworks and discourses in forced labour studies. It identifies three major problems. First, the uncritical use of dominant or conventional concepts, definitions and narratives on forced labour may reproduce (p.95) the same discourses and delegitimise divergent narratives. Thus, and second, it can foreclose the attainment of more in-depth or comprehensive understanding of the causes, nature, experiences and scope of forced labour. Third, at the policy and practice levels, it can yield measures which blame, stigmatise or penalise individuals and communities for problems which are largely caused by external economic and political forces.

The chapter accepts that conventional accounts and definitions can serve useful purposes in identifying conditions of forced labour. It is therefore not advocating for rejection of such definitions in forced labour research. Instead, it argues that use of conventional frameworks should not preclude serious engagement with counter-definitions and narratives on forced labour, especially those from communities and actors whose livelihoods and lived experiences are impacted by these definitions. It also cautions against the assumption that data or findings from studies which are based on conventional analysis, definitions and interpretations of forced labour are necessarily more rational, objective or legitimate than those which are not.

Background

This chapter draws on evidence from discourse analysis of textual data drawn primarily from materials published on the website of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Free the Slaves (FTS). FTS was founded in 2000 and it currently operates in India, Nepal, Congo, Haiti and Ghana (FTS 2016). The information analysed for the chapter was mainly, but not exclusively, taken from two publicly accessible research reports on FTS-commissioned projects on child labour, child slavery and child exploitation. The two sources are the ‘Child Slavery, Child Labour and Exploitation of Children in Mining Communities’ report and the ‘Child Rights in Mining: Pilot Project Results and Lessons Learned’ report. The research underpinning both reports was carried out through a collaboration between FTS, Participatory Development Associates (PDA) and Social Support Foundation (SSF), to support FTS campaigns and interventions on the involvement of children in the Ghanaian artisanal gold mining sector.

The analysed materials were selected based on their reliance on conventional discourses as a framework underpinning the research projects. The projects were carried out over an 18-month period between November 2011 and April 2013. They formed part of FTS’ ongoing Ghana Child Rights in Mining Project, which is primarily concerned with addressing ‘modern forms of slavery, including child sex trafficking and the related and overlapping problem of hazardous child labour’ (FTS 2013: 1), in the Ghanaian gold mining sector. Their principal aim was to document ‘the dynamics of exploitation and abuse of children in and around Obuasi, Ghana, where informal small-scale and artisanal gold mining occurs’, in order to ‘understand the narratives of exploited and enslaved children to guide programs (p.96) that strengthen community-based protection and prevention’ (FTS 2013: 1). The language used throughout the description of the project’s aims and objectives and employed throughout the published text underscores the positionality of FTS as a contemporary slavery abolitionist organisation. This positionality impacted on the study and its findings in many ways, as will be further addressed later in the chapter.

Methodologically, the study employed participatory rural appraisal, semi-structured interviews, trend analysis, focus group discussions, community mapping, body mapping, ranking and scoring, among other qualitative methods. Data collection involved three notable populations. Child research participants were first interviewed on their experiences of artisanal gold mining work. Data was also collected from community leaders, parents, miners and other stakeholders’ understandings of the causes and consequences of the forms of child exploitation the study recorded in their community. Additionally, residents were interviewed and surveyed on their understanding and awareness of initiatives by the government and civil society organisations to address child exploitation in their community. Findings from these three strands of enquiry were used to develop an illustrated storybook for sensitisation workshops in the local communities (FTS 2014: 12).

The sensitisation workshops were the focus of phase two of the project, which involved 25 learning groups comprising over 350 residents who were brought together to discuss the storybooks. Prior to giving out the illustrated materials, the researchers conducted baseline surveys involving 21 open-ended questions. Three members of each learning group were also interviewed prior to their use of the books and afterwards. The objective of the surveys and interviews was to gauge the extent to which engagement with the illustrated materials could be deemed to have changed participants’ attitudes and abilities ‘to take the right steps to protect children from abuse’ (FTS 2014: 13). Findings from both stages of the project were subsequently disseminated across the research settings, to policymakers and across the Internet as downloads via the FTS webpage.

Critical reflections on the FTS, PDA and SSF research

What follows in this section is a textual and discourse analysis critique of the texts and language employed in the reports, webpages and other published materials rather than a criticism of FTS, PDA, SSF and their researchers. The interest is in the meanings embodied in the material and the knowledge it provides about children’s involvement in gold mining in Ghana and about the participants and their communities. Given the chapter’s emphasis on the need for critical reflexivity in forced labour research, and in all research for that matter, it is important to acknowledge my own subjectivity and positionality in carrying out textual and discourse analysis of this kind. Subjectivity and politically grounded positions (p.97) inevitably shape all research and analysis. Our normative judgements, political and moral assumptions and other human cognitive processes invariably guide how we collect, read and interpret information (Gouldner 1962; Aronowitz 1988; Gould 1996; Miller 1999; Crosby & Bearman 2006). It is therefore more credible to accept this aspect of the research process rather than assume that one can operate from a position of absolute neutrality or objectivity (Ramazanoglu 1992: 211).

On the strength of the above, this chapter is not seeking to supplant one objectivity fallacy with another; it is not calling the merits or findings by the FTS, PDA and SSF study into question. Far from purporting to speak from a more knowledgeable or credible position, the chapter proceeds on the basis that critical analysis of this nature is integral to academic debate and providing researchers with feedback (Polit & Beck 2004; Burns & Grove 2001). Critical analyses of textual data on forced labour research can also further illuminate the diverse opinions or perspectives on the issue and, consequently, the different trajectories that could be adopted by future studies. Indeed, such critiques are not uncommon. The Global Slavery Index (GSI), the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the ILO Indicators of Forced Labour and others are routinely scrutinised (COHA 2016; Andreas 2010; Weitzer 2014; Gallagher 2014, 2015; Quirk & Broome 2015; Crump 2016; Nair 2016). The chapter is therefore located in this tradition and body of critical work.

The rest of the section focuses on the consequences that can arise from exploring issues such as exploitative child labour exclusively through the lenses of dominant international definitions and discourses. Three key themes which emerged from the discourse and textual data will be discussed. First, uncritical reliance on mainstream discourses and definitions reinforces their dominance and further delegitimises counter-narratives; second, it gives rise to methodological issues that adversely affect research quality; and, third, it increases the risk of empirical findings being distorted or divergent findings ignored.

Uncritical application of popular discourses and definitions may simply reinforce these definitions and discourses

The FTS, PDA and SSF projects relied primarily on international conventions such as the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (recently updated by the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), as well as FTS’ own definition of modern slavery. They also drew heavily from conventional international discourses on children’s involvement in artisanal gold mining work, which suggest that child labourers are unequivocally exploited, abused and denied their rights in this sector.

The textual data analysis shows that these discourses profoundly shaped the project and its conclusions. The language employed throughout the report embraces the discourse of pathology, exploitation and crisis. Words and phrases such as ‘exploited children’, ‘enslaved children’, ‘slavery’, ‘abused children’ and ‘forced (p.98) children’ pervade the projects’ aims, research questions and objectives in the published materials. They are also persistently used in reference to the child research participants throughout the reports. The unequivocal use of such terms or descriptions for the child research participants (before the data was even collected to confirm that the children were ‘exploited’, ‘enslaved’, ‘abused’ and ‘forced’) can suggest that foregone conclusions had been made about their situation or status in advance of the study.

The pervasive use of words such as ‘slaves’, ‘slavery’ and ‘enslaved’ for describing the child research participants throughout the published materials also reflects FTS’ own mission. The prolific use of these qualifiers underscores a congruency between the raison d’être of FTS – an abolitionist organisation – and the objectives of the study it commissioned. The positionality and political assumptions of the research sponsor cum lead organisation for the project were made evident through these terms. Further, no real distinctions were made between child exploitation, child slavery, forced labour, worst forms of child labour and other terminology, all used interchangeably throughout the text. As noted in the chapter’s introductory paragraphs, lack of precision and conflation of terminology have serious implications for the findings of studies of this nature (Kapur 2002; Galma & Finckenauer 2005; Snajdr 2013; McGrath & Mieres 2014, Pieper et al. 2015).

Methodological dilemma: delegitimising of counter-narratives and epistemologies

A second theme which emerged from the discourse and textual analysis was a tendency to privilege dominant international definitions and discourses over local views and interpretations of children’s involvement in artisanal gold mining work. This finding raises methodological questions. As noted earlier, the study’s use of mixed-methods research design offered opportunities for methodological rigour, data triangulation and enhanced understanding of the issues it set out to study (Tashakkori & Teddlie 2003; Onwuegbuzie & Leech 2004; Chow et al. 2010). The participatory methodological strategy which was employed for the qualitative component is also regarded as a means of democratising knowledge and the process of knowledge production (Habermas 1971). Participatory approaches can facilitate equal partnerships in research and co-production of knowledge between researchers and participants (Curtis 1995; Chambers 2008; Cook 2012). They can also empower or amplify the voices of marginalised communities (Oakley et al. 1991; Chambers 1994; Agrawal 1995).

On the strengths of the above, the study was well placed methodologically to produce vivid, nuanced and holistic accounts of the issues in question. However, the unquestioned use of mainstream and FTS’ own definitions and accounts, coupled with terminological conflations throughout the texts, held back this potential. (p.99) The manner of the community’s involvement in the study permitted neither the balancing or equalising of power relationships in the research process nor due consideration of their voices and narratives. From the textual and discourse analysis, it emerged that, far from democratising the knowledge production process by opening up hegemonic positions to scrutiny, the community’s analysis, interpretations and contributions were rather routinely discredited and delegitimised. The participatory approach thus merely served as a process to entrench and legitimise ideologies and the conventional ideas, discourses and understandings which had been adopted for the project at the outset. It also served to support FTS’ own positions adopted prior to the study instead of prying these open to participants’ and the community’s scrutiny in much the same way as the research sought to interrogate those of participants and their communities.

Questions about power, voice and credibility in research were therefore among the important observations which emerged from the textual and discourse analysis. The manner in which participants’ and the community’s voices were routinely questioned – while those of the researchers were taken as facts – carries an implicit assumption that the latter are necessarily more knowledgeable or better informed on the issue of children’s involvement in artisanal gold mining work than the community and participants whose daily lives were characterised by this activity, and whose lived experiences the study was actually trying to understand. A significant and long-standing body of work in the fields of international development studies and practice has similarly rightly raised concerns that participatory research has become yet another means of legitimising researchers’ and NGOs’ preconceptions or ideas rather than attaining the advertised emancipatory or collaborative goals (White 2010; Chambers 1997; Richards 1993, 1995; Leurs 1998; Green 2000; Kothari 2001; Leal 2007). The stated aim of giving participants, especially those from marginalised groups, a voice as true partners in research and developmental projects through participatory methods is sometimes merely a façade for pushing through top-down ideas and agendas, as Cooke and Kothari (2001) also note.

An area of the analysis where these observations were most evident was the report’s section on the understanding of childhood within the research communities versus that promoted by the dominant international discourse employed by the study. The project adopted the definition offered by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which stipulates that ‘a “child” is a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger’. Results from baseline surveys carried out during the second project showed that respondents overwhelmingly rejected this conventional international understanding. The report does not stipulate the specific number of survey respondents. However, it does indicate that only 18 per cent of the survey respondents agreed with the view that the age of 18 represents the boundary between childhood and adulthood (FTS 2014: 14). Upon sensitising (p.100) the community with the illustrated booklets and re-administering the survey, only 39 per cent agreed with this conventional definition (FTS 2014: 14).

It was therefore evident that the community did not agree with this understanding of childhood or the use of chronological age alone as a basis for determining a person’s maturity. This discord between the dominant international definition of childhood and understandings of the concept across diverse cultures, spaces and times has been widely discussed in sociological and anthropological texts (James & Prout 1997; Punch 2003; Gadda 2008). The differences could have been acknowledged as an example of the ways in which alternative understandings of childhood and maturity might inform the entry of children and youth into conditions of labour deemed hazardous, exploitative or forced, given that the community did not regard that category of teenagers who were involved in artisanal mining work as children in the same way as those aged 10 and below. However, the published materials held it up as a sign of parental and community naivety or ignorance. Parents were described as ‘lacking knowledge about their roles as parents, and the rights and welfare of their children’ (FTS 2014: 5), simply because their views on the definition or nature of childhood and appropriate work for children contrasted with those that had been adopted for the research. In contrast, in a manner which follows what Van Dijk (1993) describes as positive self-representation and negative other-representation, FTS is held up in the texts as being more objective, better informed and in a position to address the parents’ and community’s perceived ‘ignorance’ about their children’s rights. Thus, as stated in dissemination material on the NGO’s website: ‘Free the Slaves is building awareness about child rights in source communities that send children to work at mines. Many parents lack detailed knowledge about their roles and responsibilities in promoting child welfare, and there is a general lack of awareness about government resources to address child abuse.’

Genuine participatory research is guided by an understanding that informants are knowing subjects whose ideas, analysis and interpretations must be meaningfully considered and represented in the findings. It also embodies respect for participants and their communities, as well as commitment to inclusion of participants’ voices and insights in the knowledge researchers create and share about participants’ lives. Where evident power imbalances exist between the two, this approach to research can serve as a means of equalising or minimising power differentials between research participants and researchers; the two are co-equals or collaborators in producing knowledge. From the textual and discourse analysis, it is evident that the manner and extent to which participants’ views are elicited, and whether their ideas are inculcated into the knowledge produced, still exclusively rests with the researcher. The community’s opinions about childhood, hazardous work, exploitative labour, forced labour and other phenomena were delegitimised in the knowledge produced and disseminated by the project. A hierarchy of credibility (Becker 1967) was evident in the texts, demonstrated by a tendency to affirm (p.101) and accentuate assumptions held by the researchers while discrediting local ideas as naive or ignorant, especially where they deviated from the positions which guided the study.

Distorting or ignoring of empirical findings

A third theme from the discourse and textual analyses is that notable empirical findings could be skewed or ignored if they do not fit with the assumptions guiding the study. Earlier, the chapter mentioned that one of the most prominent observations about the discourse and textual data was the gratuitous use of words and phrases such as ‘child slavery’, ‘child sex slavery’ and ‘exploitative labour’, among others. These characterisations reflect the positionality of FTS as an abolitionist organisation which has long argued that Ghanaian children working in quarries and informal mining, including diamond and gold mines, are forced, exploited and ‘enslaved’ and that girls are subject to sexual exploitation and prostitution (FTS 2014: 8). Indeed, this long-held assumption partly underpins the NGO’s presence in Ghana. The research studies were also commissioned in part with the aim of finding evidence to support FTS’ claims of child enslavement in these economic sectors of the country.

It is instructive to note that the two studies did not find a single case or instance of ‘child sexual slavery’, ‘child prostitution’, ‘child sexual exploitation’ or ‘forced labour’, despite the repeated assertions of the existence of these phenomena by FTS. This lack of supporting evidence is noted in the report: ‘while grassroots working in these mining areas believe many children end up working in the mines because they have been coerced by parents or relatives through explicit or implicit mental or physical threat, and thus would be classified as being in child labour slavery, such cases were not documented through this formative research’ (FTS 2014: 8). Given the fact that a principal reason for the 18-month project was to document such cases, it is puzzling that this important discovery about the lack of supporting evidence is largely underplayed in the texts and dissemination material. In contrast, despite the lack of evidence, the prominent and persistent use of the terms ‘child sexual slavery’, ‘child labour slavery’, ‘child prostitution’, ‘child sexual exploitation’ and others is maintained throughout the texts and publicity materials about the study. A less critical reader, or one who does not spot the couple of lines acknowledging the lack of evidence for these pathological and stigmatising descriptions, might assume that FTS’ long-held claims of widespread ‘child slavery’ and ‘forced labour’ in the Ghanaian artisanal gold mining sector have been substantiated when this is far from the case. In fact, the report’s insistence on these terms despite the lack of evidence seems to be premised on the assumption that the ‘worst forms of child labor often occur simultaneously with child labor slavery’ (FTS 2014: 8). The research findings are therefore underplayed for the benefit of FTS’ long-standing assumptions.

(p.102) Such distortions in the presentation of empirical findings speak to concerns about the use of hyperbole, guesstimates, melodramatics and unfounded assumptions in the place of dispassionate analysis and data on forced labour, human trafficking and other related issues (Andrijasevic & Mai 2016). It is particularly troubling because although such data produced by NGOs for their own awareness raising, training and fundraising campaigns may be poor quality, these studies and claims now inform rankings on the GSI, the TIP Report and other metrics which have serious economic, political and reputational implications for what are often relatively poor countries. Just as guesstimates and fictitious figures on forced labour are repeated until they begin to appear as truths (Yea 2017: 1), so too, it seems, the text from the FTS, PDA and SSF materials reinforces unfounded assumptions of widespread child slavery in the Ghanaian gold mining sector. Children’s work in artisanal gold mining can be unsafe and needs urgent solutions. However, the manner in which the issue is presented in the dissemination materials is still problematic, given the lack of evidence to support the original assumptions of ‘child slavery’ and forced child labour in this sector. The persistence of these claims in FTS’ ongoing campaigns in relation to the Ghanaian artisanal gold mining communities creates a false image that stigmatises, and could contribute to economic sanctions and other penalties against, a country that is already struggling to meet the welfare needs of its citizens such as those who participated in the study.

Forced labour research and (NGO) bias and politics

The observations discussed in the previous section highlight a blind spot in the text concerning the ways in which researcher subjectivity and political and moral assumptions shape or constrain efforts to produce more inclusive and comprehensive knowledge of forced labour. Partisanship is not inherently ineffective (Becker 1967). Indeed, from a feminist theoretical perspective, supporting an underdog or a marginalised group, or seeking to challenge manifest inequality and injustice through research, is desirable (Brewer 2000; Skeggs 2007: 432). It has long been accepted that our individual identities, emotions, values and cognitive processes always have an impact on the research we carry out (Gouldner 1962; May 1993; Finlay 2002; Ferrell & Hamm 1998: 257; Lumsden 2013). However, as part of what has been termed the reflective turn or ‘reflective partisanship’ (Gouldner 1973: 53), contemporary social researchers must be open about which side they have taken, if so. They must also reflect on how their own (and others’) values, beliefs and identities influence the design, conduct and dissemination of research (Coffey 1999: 5; Heartz 1997; Nightingale & Cromby 1999; Brewer 2000).

From the dissemination materials, it is evident that the community’s values and ideologies are subjected to critical scrutiny at every point in the research. However, (p.103) the text is markedly silent on how the researchers’ own ideologies, politics and standpoints shaped the study and their interrogation of the former’s ideas. The text suggests a foregone conclusion that views held by parents and the community are necessarily less valid relative to those held by the researchers. Linked to this is an implicit assumption of moral superiority. Subjective moral judgements are cast on the parenting skills, knowledge and abilities of those who participated in the study. Whole communities are tainted with the brush of ignorance because their views happened to challenge or contradict those held by the researchers. However, the ideology, positionality and agenda of the latter were not similarly held up for scrutiny in the text and considered in terms of their rationality, naivety or otherwise in the context and circumstances within which the views of parents and the community were formed.

In Yea’s (2017) view, this issue is especially prominent in NGO/non-academic studies. Many do not appear to have much time for or see much value in critically examining how researcher identity and position inform findings, despite the importance of such considerations in all social research (Yea 2017: 1). Evidently, use of the most innovative or sophisticated methodology may still fail to yield inclusive or comprehensive knowledge when researchers are unwilling to challenge their own preconceptions, agendas, terminologies and concepts. The FTS, PDA and SSF project was premised on a belief in the existence of forced labour and ‘child slavery’ in the Ghanaian artisanal gold mining sector. The project’s stated objective at the very outset was to ‘understand the narratives of exploited and enslaved children’ (FTS 2014: 2), a foregone conclusion on the existence of ‘enslaved children’ that was maintained even when no evidence was found. Taking a critical reflexive approach to the study by questioning the assumptions, identities and positionality of the organisations involved may have helped to correct the distortions.

The distortion of empirical findings also occurred because, to put it bluntly, organisations such as FTS have clear vested interests in the conceptualisation or construction of the problems they set out to study and in the findings of such studies (Weitzer 2014: 7). They assert the existence of ‘child slavery’ or forced labour in order to attract attention and support from the media, national governments and other stakeholders for fundraising and other purposes. FTS is at the forefront of modern abolitionist organisations in Ghana, and one of the areas where it is mainly focused is the artisanal gold mining sector. Contradictions to its long-held beliefs and persistent claims on the existence of widespread ‘forced labour’ and ‘child slavery’ in this sector would not necessarily be helpful to the NGO’s case. To publicise the fact that an 18-month project commissioned to document instances of ‘forced labour’ and ‘child slavery’ did not find a single case could have implications for its ability to raise funds for this work and ultimately affect its credibility. Such vested interest also explains the blurring of boundaries and conflation of terminology in this field, as others have discussed (Musto 2009; O’Connell Davidson 2006, 2010; Pieper et al. 2015). The report not only speaks (p.104) of ‘child labour’ or ‘worst forms of child labour’ but also introduces terms such as ‘child labour slavery’ and ‘sexual slavery’ as if these are different or distinct phenomena which have been found by the study.

Conclusion

This chapter has extended critiques of definitional and conceptual frameworks as potential obstacles for attaining more inclusive, comprehensive data and knowledge on forced labour. Critical appraisal of discourse and textual data was employed in support of the chapter’s arguments. I have presented three principal problems that might occur in the application of broad, international definitions, concepts and discourses without due regard for how such work is conceived, rationalised or understood by those involved and by the communities in which it occurs. The underlying problem, the chapter has argued, is that this inadvertently privileges mainstream discourses, international legislation and interpretations over local voices. Researchers, NGOs and other actors who subscribe unequivocally to the mainstream international definitions and discourses may also presume that they are better informed and unbiased, or that their opinions are more rational and legitimate than those held by the people whose lived experiences they seek to study.

Chambers (1997) has presented a similar critique. Voices from below – and particularly participants whose accounts deviate from the orthodoxy – are unlikely to be given due consideration even if their opinions were elicited and reflected in research and policymaking. To receive the due attention and support, their accounts and portrayals must fit with those recognised by the dominant discourse. For NGOs, which have to solicit for funds, a story about ‘forced child labour’ or ‘child mining slaves’ in a poor African country seems much easier to promote compared to a narrative about children who have not been coerced or compelled by a third party but have exercised constrained agency and choice to seek work in difficult, dangerous and hazardous conditions such as artisanal gold mining. Likewise, greater sympathy might be gained from governments and donors by individualising the cause of this problem or attributing it to parental or communal ignorance and callousness rather than the outcome of structural problems, such as governmental failure and socio-economic injustices created by neoliberal reforms imposed on countries like Ghana. Ultimately, what gets counted as valid and authoritative knowledge for policymaking on forced labour are invariably ideas, values and opinions which fit with those preferred by national governments and international organisations. Studies which produce contrasting or non-conventional categorisations are unlikely to be taken on board.

The chapter accepts that international definitions, categorisations and discourses can serve useful purposes. It is therefore not advocating for a complete rejection of (p.105) such definitions in research. However, the chapter cautions against the assumption that such discourses are essential, neutral or universal. They reflect particular ideological, political and socio-cultural interests and must therefore be critically considered in the same way as divergent narratives and discourses encountered in the field. Additionally, forced labour research, like any other social research activity, is located in – and loaded with – diverse socio-political and moral meanings. All these meanings must be carefully considered for a more holistic understanding of the issue and responses to it.

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