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'Let the market decide': the ultimate cop-out in the fight against labour exploitation

Consumers don't have the time or the spare cash to only purchase ethically from companies they've thoroughly researched. Why do we pretend they do?

Jasn/flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I'm Caroline Robinson. I work for Focus on Labour Exploitation, which is an organisation that I co-founded with Claire Falconer in 2013. We work to end trafficking for labour exploitation, and we do that by working to prevent the structural drivers of exploitation as we understand them.

Sam Okyere (oD): Would you be able to comment on the sorts of changes you've seen in migrant labour exploitation over the last decade or last couple of years? Have there been any transformations, or are there trends that have just continued?

Caroline: In the UK context, we've seen increasing flexibility and marginalisation of worker status and of workers in the labour market. People have been moved to more individualised employment statuses, and therefore collective approaches to rights promotion and protection have been, I would say, weakened in that regard. Unionisation is very low now, between 20%-30%, and the position of migrant workers as individuals within the labour market rather than parts of a collective labour movement is very clear.

There are things that are much talked about, like zero hours contracts, or short hours contracts, or extensive subcontracting, whereby many workers don't know who their employer is. These relationships have become quite normalised. It’s not longer even questioned whether a business that is utterly dependent upon a zero hours workforce is a viable option, a good option. That is just considered a normal option.

It would be really important to have some space, gateway, or channel for abused or exploited workers to reach information, advice, and support for accessing their rights in the UK.

Sam (oD): Focusing on the UK context, I think there's a paradox here: I'm referring to the Sports Direct issue, and how it seems to resonate with people’s concern for human rights, while at the same time we know there are various sectors where the exact same thing happens under the radar. Is this something you've observed as well?

Caroline: Yeah, I guess it's one of the pitfalls of a response that suggests the consumer is the ultimate holder of accountability for corporations, where it is presumed that the consumer has an interest and time and money to hold every company to account that they engage with or to whom they give money. There's limited work that consumers and the media can do to call out the practices of an individual company.

Once there is a spotlight on company practices that are particularly abusive or exploitative, I think people do respond. That said, some did say with Sports Direct that the low prices were encouragement enough to go there regardless of other practices. So to expect that across the business sector – for every business, no matter what size, no matter what their brand image – there will be a kind of public shaming of that company and that people will act is not realistic.

Sam (oD): Has there has there been any major impediments to your work at FLEX, perhaps policies or funding issues? What have you found most challenging in terms of trying to do the advocacy that you do?

Caroline: As I said, Claire and I founded FLEX in 2013 and since then we've had four children between us – so maybe that's the biggest challenge we have faced. But other than that, we are facing quite a hostile environment in the UK – in the context of Brexit – towards many of the issues on which we work. Not just the rights of migrants in the UK, but also on employment rights and the role that new trading relationships will have in the UK labour market. It is going to be a real challenge for us to try to ensure that labour protections are a core part of that discussion.

Brexit has been a big challenge for us on a practical level. The real upheaval that has taken place because of Brexit and all that has happened subsequently – it’s quite hard to move forward on many issues when you're engaging with government at the moment, because they're so busy with other matters. There's been some very immediate challenges, as well as some broader structural challenges.

Sam (oD): Finally, if you were to propose a ‘silver bullet’, you know a single policy or measure which would address some of the problems you've identified in your area of work, what would it be?

Caroline: I think it's very difficult to suggest a single measure. Indeed, I suppose one would be to really counter the idea that there is a single measure. Maybe that's a cop out.

At the moment, an immediate measure that we think would be really important is to have some space, gateway, or channel for abused or exploited workers to reach information, advice, and support for accessing their rights in the UK. That space would sit between an employee-employer mediation avenue that we have under something called Acas in the UK, and a modern slavery help line for people who have been severely exploited. There is this massive gulf in the middle, and to address that space would, I think, go some way toward bridging this vacuum of information that we find particularly post-Brexit: so many workers have no idea what's going on and no idea about what will happen to them, and that is really feeding the ground for abuse to take place.

About the authors

Caroline Robinson is policy director at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), which promotes effective responses to human trafficking for labour exploitation that prioritise the needs and voice of trafficked persons and their human rights. Follow Caroline on Twitter @CaroRobins0n.

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.


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