Fighting the scourge of forced labour
November 2016 | FEATURE | LABOUR & EMPLOYMENT
Financier Worldwide Magazine
Few topics raise the hackles among the global populace as that of forced labour – a reality that essentially represents a scourge on humanity.
A contentious issue, forced labour – especially child labour – has been on the radar for many years. The issue prompts a fair degree of discomfort when one realises that many multinational companies do benefit from forced or child labour somewhere along their supply chain.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) – the UN agency which monitors labour practices around the world – characterises the victims of forced labour as the poorest and most vulnerable members of society: women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept in check due to illegal tactics and paid little or nothing at all.
Many of these tales of woe are at the forefront of report’s such as the ILO’s own ‘Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour’ (2014) – a candid analysis of how forced labour violates the human rights and dignity of millions of people all over the world and, in the words of Guy Ryder, ILO director-general, “contributes to the perpetuation of poverty”.
These victims are people trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave, explains Jeff Norman, a specialist in modern slavery and human trafficking. “Forced labour can happen in any sector or industry, but is especially prevalent in those that require low-skilled labour, such as agriculture and mining, or occupations hidden from public view, like domestic service,” he says.
Living on the fringes of society where they are vulnerable to slavery practices, the victims of forced labour are frequently minority or marginalised groups that face the most heinous institutionalised discrimination. “In the current globalised environment, vulnerable groups escaping poverty, wars and discrimination, seek to improve their lives and send money back to their families,” explains Mr Norman. “Often they get an offer of a well-paying job through family, friends, recruitment agencies or people smugglers or traffickers. But when they arrive in the place of destination, they find that the work they were promised does not exist and they are forced instead to work in jobs or conditions to which they did not agree.”
A $150bn ‘business’
Whether one refers to the issue as forced/child labour, modern slavery, debt bondage, human trafficking or any other equally emotive phrase, the practice in the private economy generates US$150bn in illegal profits per year, according to the ILO.
Drilling down, the UN agency’s extensive research reveals the extent of the issue across the globe. Almost 21 million people – three out of every 1000 people worldwide – are victims of forced labour, with 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups. Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors most concerned. Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.
“The US Department of Labor has listed 136 goods made with child or forced labour, from electronics to coffee,” notes Kate Dunbar, human trafficking and fair labour subject matter expert at Assent Compliance. “Individuals are predominantly exploited in the unregulated, informal economy, hidden at the end of supply chains in workshops or homes. Industries with a high prevalence of forced and child labour include agriculture, manufacturing, construction and the service sector.”
According to Robert Teel, a lawyer with a strong focus on forced labour and anti-human trafficking issues, the top five countries with the most enslaved people are India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. “India, with the second largest population in the world, is by far the worst offender with the largest absolute number of modern-day slaves estimated at 14.3 million people,” says Mr Teel. “India’s forced labour population is more than four times greater than China, the next highest population, and greater than the next four figures combined.”
However, for all the doom and gloom engendered by the prevalence of forced labour across the globe, a vestige of good news has been provided by ILO research and analysis, which indicates that child labour is decreasing in a number of jurisdictions – an extremely welcome development, though one that barely scratches the surface of the major global problem that is the wider forced labour issue.
According to ILO estimates, jurisdictions which are particularly vulnerable to forced labour exploitation include the Asia Pacific region, which has 11.7 million people in forced labour – the highest number recorded and 56 percent of the global total. Next is Africa with 3.7 million victims (18 percent) and Latin America with 1.8 million victims (9 percent).
“Forced labour flourishes in areas where regulation and labour standards are lacking or not enforced,” points out Therese Kieve, senior research & engagement officer at ShareAction. “In addition, the presence of high numbers of vulnerable workers such as minorities and migrants increases the risk of exploitation. In the Thai seafood industry, for example, vulnerable workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia comprise the majority of the workforce and are at high risk of exploitation.”
Vulnerability to exploitation is invariably linked to other factors such as poverty, discrimination, lack of social protection, conflict and natural disaster. The current Syrian refugee crisis, which has seen an exorbitant rise in child labour among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, is a prime example of children’s increased vulnerability due to violence and displacement.
Although more prevalent in developing countries, child and forced labour can also occur in wealthy, developed economies, where migrants and minority groups are the people most at risk, suggests Ms Dunbar.
Steps: the importance of due diligence
What, then, should be done to address the burgeoning issue of forced labour? To what extent are companies ignorant of the issue, and need to be compelled to act?
“There are many steps that companies can take but the focus should be on conducting due diligence of their supply chains and operations to identify and mitigate forced labour abuses,” Ms Kieve submits. “Companies are often unaware of the extent due to multi-level supply chains that extend globally. But being unaware is not a valid excuse as companies may be making demands on suppliers and contractors in order to reduce costs that continue to increase the risk of forced labour practices occurring. Companies should also not try to cover up the fact that they have discovered forced labour in their supply chain or operations. Transparency is key, and it is very important that companies voluntarily disclose the steps they are taking to remediate the problem.”
No global supply chain can really claim to be free of forced labour, but most companies do not actually know where to begin and how to target their efforts to tackle the problem. “Policies can only go so far and companies must conduct meaningful due diligence,” says Ms Dunbar. “This entails actively identifying risks, which requires commitment from the highest level of a company. Beyond engaging and educating suppliers, companies must recognise and change business practices that jeopardise worker and child rights.”
Others, such as Anita Sheth, senior advisor for social compliance and development at Fairtrade International, believe that companies sourcing products with a known risk of child or forced labour have a key role to play in supporting the producer communities to tackle these issues. “They can support farmers and workers to build sustainable livelihoods and work toward long-term sustainability in their sectors,” she suggests, adding that companies can support producer organisations which are building due diligence and risk identification and mitigation on a continuous basis at a community level.
“Forced labour is a growing problem throughout the world and all efforts must be made to address this human rights violation,” says Ms Sheth. One major effort to address the issue is the legally binding Protocol to ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour, introduced in 2014, and adopted by government, employers and workers. The protocol provides much stronger measures to protect impacted individuals in forced labour situations and prevents the possibility of unacceptable practices taking place. “We know there are no quick-fix solutions to ending labour exploitation. We believe that companies, governments, certifiers, non-governmental organisations, consumers and workers themselves all have a role to play in addressing the root causes of exploitation,” says Ms Sheth.
Implementing measures that encompass a range of stakeholders improves the likelihood of a resolution. Tackling the forced labour issue is a challenge that should involve stakeholders fully holding companies to account. “Forced labour is but one of several human rights risks applicable to global companies,” says Ms Kieve. “Public awareness of the issue is growing and investors in particular can play a key role.” Investors can hold companies to account on the issue of forced labour by pushing for full disclosure under mandatory reporting regimes. This, alongside legislation currently in force, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act and California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act, is a positive trend. “In light of the growing awareness, we would expect the outlook to improve,” adds Ms Kieve.
For Mr Norman, the eradication of forced labour and achieving decent work in the globalised economy requires action at an international level. “The world community is responding to this challenge in part by developing international legal instruments on trade, finance, environment, human rights and labour,” he says. “The ILO’s Governing Body, which is the executive body of the ILO, has identified eight conventions as ‘fundamental’, covering subjects that are considered as fundamental principles and rights at work: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.”
Path to eradication
It is extremely difficult to accurately estimate the extent of forced labour across the globe. Certainly, the universal condemnation and prohibition of forced labour has now become the established norm, but the practice continues and shows no clear sign of being eradicated.
A turning point may have been reached, however, with the traction being gained by new legislation as a portent of better things to come. “The tide may finally be turning against this terrible scourge on human rights,” says Mr Teel.
The ILO has itself stated that this scourge of forced labour can only be effectively fought, and ultimately defeated, through the combined efforts of key stakeholders, such as governments, labour organisations and employers’ organisations. Encouragingly, UK prime minister Theresa May recently added her voice to the fight against forced labour by calling for international action to stamp out modern slavery.
A strategy of collaboration and sharing is therefore key – a pooling of resources, knowledge and expertise that can go some way toward providing a formidable solution that will eliminate forced labour wherever it may be found.
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