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Confronting the root causes of forced labour: limited labour protection

Freedom from forced labour depends on workers' ability to access labour protections. Why are so many them unable to do so?

IIlustration by Carys Boughton(CC BY-NC 4.0)

In 2013, the Bangladeshi garment industry made headlines after the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed, killing more than 1000 people and injuring more than 1000 others.[1] A year later, rampant use of forced labour was documented in Thailand’s shrimp industry, a major supplier to the world’s largest retailers.[2] And in 2017, shoppers at a Zara retail store in Istanbul found messages sewn into clothing claiming garment workers were not being paid. It was later discovered that Inditex, Zara’s parent company, had refused to pay 155 labourers after one of its factories unexpectedly shut down in 2016.[3]

These high-profile cases are just a taste of the widespread and well-documented instances of labour abuse occurring across various countries and sectors in today’s global economy.[4, 5, 6] All involved workers who were left unprotected in part because they were in non-standard forms of work: temporary work, part-time and on-call work, contract and agency work, and false self-employment. Non-standard work is usually associated with lower wages and fewer protections, as well as difficulty in accessing available protections. Non-standard workers are also disproportionately vulnerable to abuses such as wage theft and illegal wage deductions, mandatory overtime, and health and safety violations. As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes, non-standard forms of work have become “a prominent feature of labour markets in developing countries, and has grown in importance in industrialized countries. In Bangladesh and India, nearly two-thirds of wage employment is casual”.[7]

The decline of ‘standard’ work and the labour protections that came with it has been a major component of globalisation. For all workers this has meant greater difficulty in accessing the protections that are in place, and for the ranks of non-standard workers, many of those protections are not available at all. Additionally, many governments have exempted certain sectors and areas (e.g. export processing zones) from labour laws and protections, such as those that govern minimum wage and overtime.

This has created a context in which various grades of labour exploitation are able to thrive, including forced labour at the extreme end of the labour exploitation continuum.[8] Indeed, a core factor driving forced labour is the interaction between workers’ individual vulnerability – which as we have shown, can be rooted in poverty, adverse incorporation and intersecting forms of social discrimination – and a setting in which workers can be exploited without impunity.[9] This chapter looks at how shifts in the labour protection landscape have contributed to workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, including forced labour.

From protection to precarity

Extensive research has documented the relationship between neoliberal market restructuring and the proliferation of unprotected, precarious form of work.[10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15] The workers who are the most likely to suffer from labour abuses are those in low-paid, informal and unorganised jobs[16, 17] and in sectors that are heavily reliant on flexible, temporary workforces.[18]

The expansion of precarious work globally has coincided with the rise of global production networks.[19] While later chapters explore in much greater depth how these networks function, for the moment it suffices to say that precarious work is attractive for firms because it both reduces labour costs and absolves employers of responsibility for their employees. As such, precarious work has become extremely widespread. A 2016 report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) analysed the global supply chains of 50 TNCs with a combined revenue of US$3.4 trillion, and found that only 6% of their global supply chain workforces were directly employed. Of the remaining 94%, large swathes were in non-standard employment.[20]

Neoliberal reforms have also created spaces of legal exception where production takes place literally beyond the bounds of ‘mainland’ law, such as export processing zones (EPZs).[21, 22] EPZs are industrial havens offering investors tax breaks and labour law exemptions in an effort to attract their foreign capital. They have exploded over recent decades, increasing from 80 to over 3000 between 1975 and 2000.[23] They now play a major role in many global supply chains. Research from a range of contexts shows that labour standards within them are frequently poor, and workers caught within them frequently face forced overtime, dangerous conditions, and widespread gender or racial discrimination.[24, 25, 26]

Living with insecurity

These shifts have had dire consequences for workers. Alongside declining real wages, many now-informal workers face increased exploitation, and a greater need to accept difficult, dangerous and dirty work for want of superior alternatives.[27, 28, 29] Informality has made them unprotected. A good example of this is the garment industry, where the proliferation of outsourcing labour from the factory to the home has excluded home-based workers from certain labour protections, while also creating barriers to organising.[30, 31] The expansion of informalisation, temporariness and flexibility has also led to increased insecurity for workers,[32] as it makes planning for the future and bargaining to improve work conditions more difficult. Starting workers on temporary contracts is a powerful way to keep them there, as it enables employers to quickly jettison any workers attempting to organise.[33]

The decline of ‘standard’ work and the labour protections that came with it has been a major component of globalisation.

The widespread incidence of wage-related rights abuses has been widely documented. One report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that 73% of contract workers and 50% of permanent workers across 36 seafood processing plants in southern Bangladesh reported receiving less than the nationally set minimum wage. In many sectors, including garment production, agriculture, and food processing, a shift from hourly wages to a piece-rate system has also deepened workers’ income insecurity.[34, 35, 36] Too often, piece-rate salaries received by workers do not amount to the minimum or living wage.[37] And in many cases, already low wages are further reduced by deductions for food and housing,[38, 39] and wage theft practices – such as late payments, non-payments, or denial of legally stipulated overtime rates.[40]

In addition to wage-related rights abuses, workers are also vulnerable to coercive practices that could make them vulnerable to forced labour. In the US seafood processing industry, for example, a shift from unionised workers to immigrant labour provided by temporary work agencies has given employers greater ability to implement low wages and substandard work conditions while evading liability. A report by the National Guestworker Alliance found that many of these workers faced immigration-related coercion (such as threats to call police or immigration), the inability to change employers, and threats of blacklisting, physical harm and sexual abuse.[41]

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance has also found that workers producing garments for Walmart in supplier factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Indonesia face threats of termination for refusing to work overtime or for exercising their right to freedom of association.[42] In many cases, gender-based violence or threats of violence can have similar impacts in terms of disciplining workers, as documented in Bolivia’s cattle and Brazil-nut sectors,[43] Bangladesh’s shrimp industry,[44] Ecuador’s cut flower industry,[45] and Guatemala’s palm oil sector,[46] just to name a few. These forms of gender-based violence in the workplace make it particularly difficult for women workers to bargain collectively and to advocate for better work conditions.[47]

The decline of collective action

The history of labour relations shows unquestionably that worker power lies in numbers, with union strength consistently correlated with better working conditions, greater respect for existing labour laws, and greater likelihood of worker redress in the case of abuse.[48, 49] We know, for example, that in industries with strong trade union representation, there are reduced rates of forced labour and other forms of exploitation.[50, 51, 52]

We also know that where workers do not enjoy the right or ability to collectively organise and defend their rights, they are more likely to experience individual and collective forms of exploitation. Yet, governments all over the world have placed limits on union activity. These have ranged from denying the right of collective organisation to specific sub-sets of workers (such as migrants), removing the requirement for firms to bargain collectively, raising the number of members necessary to form a union, setting mandatory participation rates in strike ballots and physically preventing union formation.[53, 54]

Union membership is thus everywhere down.[55] In the United States, for example, the rate of union membership was 10.7% in 2016, almost half the 20.1% it was in 1983.[56] The ILO’s recent study of bargaining coverage in 48 countries found an average drop of 4.6% between 2008 and 2013, while the average decline in union density over the same period and for the same group of countries was 2.3%.[57]

Absent state efforts to ensure workers’ rights to form unions and organise, it is more difficult for workers to advocate for better work conditions or to report cases of labour exploitation or forced labour.

Lack of enforcement

While gaps in both international and domestic labour laws certainly exist, most labour violations occur when existing laws to protect workers are not enforced. An acute example is minimum wage. Despite being addressed in most countries’ national laws as well as in international law, minimum wage requirements are continually and consistently violated all along the supply chain. So too are safety regulations, so too are holiday and overtime pay requirements.[58]

Part of the problem is that labour inspectorates face chronic personnel and funding shortages almost everywhere.[59] Overstretched government agents are unable to keep up with even formal enterprises, let alone the vast informal economy where forced labour concentrates.[60] This is of great significance because research shows that labour compliance is more likely where inspections are more frequent.[61]

Instead, severely strained labour enforcement authorities have looked for any way they can to reduce their burden. One solution governments have hit upon is self-regulation by the private sector. Business has promoted this idea as well, lobbying for the power, legitimacy, and discretion to create and enforce their own rules.[62] Their success has given them freedom from oversight whilst also allowing them to market themselves as ‘socially responsible’. These private corporate social responsibility initiatives have well-documented flaws, which we will explore in detail in chapter 11.[63, 64, 65, 66]

These dynamics are highly damaging for global labour. At the macro level, they are reflected in rising inequality, stagnant or declining real wages, and in capital’s capture of an ever-increasing share of global value relative to labour.[67, 68] At the micro-level they contribute directly to pushing workers into vulnerable ‘zones of exception’ beyond the reach of protection, by fostering climates where labour exploitation and forced labour can thrive. In 2015, the ITUC found that almost half of the 141 countries they examined had “systematic violations” or “no guarantee” of labour rights.[69] This is not a coincidence. The freedom from forced labour depends on the capability of accessing external protection, and under the circumstances documented above far too many are unable to do so.

Next chapter: Supply 4 of 4: Restrictive migration regimes


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  2. H. Hodal et al. (2014) ‘Revealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UK’, The Guardian. ↩︎
  3. Sustainable Brands (2017) ‘Inditex Creates Uproar, Refuses to Pay Wages to Over 150 Turkish Garment Workers’. ↩︎
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  28. I. Bosc (2017) ‘Why roundabout solutions to forced labour don’t work’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  29. S. Prithviraj (2017) ‘Corporate social responsibility should start with giving workers a fair wage’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  30. R. M. Sudarshan & S. Sinha (2011) ‘Making Home-based Work Visible: A Review of Evidence from South Asia’, WIEGO. ↩︎
  31. R. Bhaskaran et al. (2013) ‘Vulnerable workers and labour standards (non-) compliance in global production networks: home-based child labour in Delhi’s garment sector’. ↩︎
  32. G. LeBaron (2015) ‘Unfree Labour Beyond Binaries’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(1), 1-19. ↩︎
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  41. National Guestworker Alliance (2016) ‘Raising the Floor for Supply Chain Workers: Perspective from U.S. Seafood Supply Chains’, 58. ↩︎
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  44. Verité (2012) ‘Research On Indicators Of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Shrimp in Bangladesh’. ↩︎
  45. Inernational Labor Rights Forum (2005), ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: The Cut Flower Industry’, Washington: DC. ↩︎
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  47. ILRF (2017) ‘Time for a change: Advancing Legal Protections On Gender-Based Violence At Work’, Washington: DC, 5. ↩︎
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  53. SAPRIN (2002) ‘The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis and Poverty’, Washington DC, 84. ↩︎
  54. Ibid., 86. ↩︎
  55. Oxfam International (2004) ‘Trading Away Our Rights: Women working in global supply chains’, 24. ↩︎
  56. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor (2017) ‘Union members summary’. ↩︎
  57. International Labour Organization (2015) ‘Labour relations and collective bargaining’, Issue Brief No. 1, Geneva: ILO. ↩︎
  58. See ‘Workers Voices from the Global Supply Chain’ report series. ↩︎
  59. Oxfam International (2004) ‘Trading Away Our Rights: Women working in global supply chains’, 45. ↩︎
  60. International Labour Organization (2009) ‘The cost of coercion’, Geneva: ILO, 44. ↩︎
  61. R. Almeida & L. Ronconi (2016) ‘Labor Inspections in the Developing World: Stylized Facts from the Enterprise Survey’, Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 55(3), 468-489. ↩︎
  62. S. Gill & A. C. Cutler (eds) (2014) New Constitutionalism and World Order, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎
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  64. G LeBaron et al. (2017) ‘The New Gatekeeper: Ethical Audits as a Mechanism of Global Value Chain Governance’, in A. C. Cutler & Thomas Dietz (eds) The Political Economy of Private Transnational Governance by Contract, London: Routledge, 97-114. ↩︎
  65. G. LeBaron & J. Lister (2016) ‘Ethical Audits and the Supply Chains of Global Corporations’, SPERI Global Political Economy Brief No. 1. ↩︎
  66. G. LeBaron & J. Lister (2015) ‘Benchmarking Global Supply Chains: The Power of the ‘Ethical Audit’ Regime’, Review of International Studies, 41(5), 905-924. ↩︎
  67. D. Harvey (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press. ↩︎
  68. G. Duménil & D. Levy (2005) ‘Costs and Benefits of Neoliberalism’, in Epstein, G. (ed.), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar. ↩︎
  69. International Trade Union Confederation (2015) ‘Global Rights Index’. ↩︎
About the authors

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.


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