This article examines the intersection of state policies, private brokers and local employers that fuels trafficking practices and forced labor of legal labor migrants. Focusing on the Israeli case of labor migration, we offer a meso-level institutional analysis of the modes by which private brokers’s actions combine with state regulations and policies in creating labor trafficking. More specifically, we stress the active role official labor migration schemes play in the growth of a private brokerage sector driven by profit considerations and in the privatization of state capacities regarding migration control and management. Our analysis demonstrates how systemic features – and not necessarily or solely criminal activities – catalyze trafficking practices taking place first and foremost within the realm of legal migration.
This article illuminates the complex ways whereby legality and illegality, choice and coercion, and private and public agents intertwine to facilitate labor trafficking. Human trafficking is widely recognized as a global crime and an affront to democratic values and human rights; however, Israeli labor migration evinces a complex relation between legitimate and illegitimate practices that culminate in forced labor, bondage, and the turning of “transported” labor migrants into trafficked human beings.
The Israeli case yields some insights into this trade. First, it highlights the need to introduce into trafficking research a meso-level analysis that pays closer attention to institutional mechanisms, public and private actors’ logics of action and patterned interactions that make possible human trafficking and shape its meaning (Kyle and Dale, 2001). Investigation of the intermediary system in global migration and the range of public and private agents that facilitate trafficking are crucial, particularly in light of the tendency to portray trafficking as a result of either transnational and global networks or individualized criminal actions (Salt, 2000; Kyle and Dale, 2001). In this article, we have drawn attention to the intersection of state policies, legitimate private brokers, and local employers at the receiving end of labor migration, and how they interact in fueling trafficking practices and forced labor. Focusing on the Israeli case, we analyzed the active role of official labor migration schemes in the growth of a private brokerage industry driven by profit considerations, and in the deliberate reconfiguration of state capabilities in the managing and controlling of the labor migration process. Thus, the picture emerging from our analysis is not one of state weakness and loss of control, but rather one in which neo-liberal governance configurations intersect with the commodification of migration to facilitate trade in human labor. Moreover, we showed how by rolling out the recruitment and control of labor migrants to private agents, state agencies attempt to divert public responsibility over the protection of labor migrants from abuse and deceit.
Secondly, through an in-depth analysis of the Israeli case, we documented how corruption in state and non-state actors (from active involvement in corrupt practices to passivity that tolerates the abuse of public power) allows abuse and exploitation to take place and feeds the industry of labor migration trafficking. But, our institutional analysis also shows that the conditions for trafficking cannot be fully explained merely by the existence of fraud, deceit, and abusive practices driven by profit seeking. Corruption and criminality should not overshadow the ways in which institutional configurations that favor privatized recruitment policies and official mechanisms that work consistently to the benefit of employers (such as the binding system and the threat of automatic deportation), coupled with flimsy state prosecution of law-breaking employers, have provided the means and the opportunity for the legal labor migration system to degenerate into a human trafficking industry. As stated by Richards (2004:160), “markets with a tolerance for restriction on freedom of movement, withholding wages and inhumane or unsafe working conditions” form opportunistic environments for the emergence of trafficking practices. Our study of the Israeli case has shown how the institutional and normative setting that guides non-citizens’ recruitment and employment meets this basic definition.
Thirdly, our analysis highlights the modes wherein official arrangements blur the distinction between legal and illegal and voluntary and forced migration. One of the most common problems in Israel is the abuse of indentured labor migrants. They are promised well-paid jobs, yet on arrival, some find themselves trapped in substandard living and working conditions. These conditions drive many of them into the realm of “illegality” as they abandon their original employer. Hence, through the binding system, “legally” exploited migrants become free “illegal” workers. Paradoxically, in Israel, migrants with permits who embark on their journey as voluntary migrants are those who risk falling victim of trafficking. Because illegal migrant workers operate in a free market, they are able to negotiate better salaries and working conditions while breaking free of debt-bondage situations in which they must pay for high recruitment fees.
Fourthly, although not the focus of this article, our analysis suggests that local NGOs, advocacy networks, professionals and international standards and tools can be crucial in prompting antitrafficking campaigns. Equally important are reforms that absorb international conventions and normative standards into national legislation. However, these institutions alone cannot eliminate trafficking altogether. Antitrafficking efforts evince tensions between human rights approaches, which recognize labor migrants as victims of abuse and offense, and a utilitarian approach that places systematically employers and citizens’ interests over labor migrants’ rights. As the Israeli case shows, the latter are deeply linked to a deeper institutional logic which views labor migrants as “necessary” and yet as a latent threat to national sovereignty and identity.
NGO and IOM reports often note the Middle East’s status as a destination area for trafficking in women and labor, but scant research exists on trafficking in the Middle East in general, and in Israel in particular (Calandruccio, 2005; Limoncelli, 2009).29 Although we pointed at similarities between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, particularly in regard to the centrality of the patronage system and the types of abuses in which it typically results, the present paper concentrates on the specific case study of Israel. Notwithstanding, we believe that the theoretical arguments we advance in the paper regarding the contribution of a meso-level institutional analysis for understanding the conditions under which legal practices, official and legitimate actors and mechanisms catalyze trafficking in labor, can be applied and examined in other contexts. Considering that Israel has become a significant importer of labor migration in the last two decades, we hope that a contextualized analysis of the local processes that facilitate the transnational business of trafficking in Israel can better inform human trafficking policy and programs, which are swiftly proliferating in the regional and transnational scene.