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Confronting the root causes of forced labour: where do we go from here?

A lot of work remains to be done in order to end forced labour. Thankfully, organisers and advocates around the globe are pioneering promising solutions. It's time to follow their lead.

Illustration by Carys Boughton(CC BY-NC 4.0)

Globalisation's promise was to pull people out of poverty by integrating them into the world market and offering them decent work. It hasn't delivered. Today, hundreds of millions of people are unemployed; more than 75% of the global workforce is on temporary or informal contracts; the ranks of the working poor are expanding daily; the provision of social and labour protection has been reduced; migrant rights are under threat; and exploitative as well as forced labour appear endemic in a number of industries. What is worse, many of the policy efforts aiming to address these problems don’t seem to be working. What, therefore, is to be done? In this, our concluding chapter, we point in a number of promising new directions and outline the kinds of actions that can be and have been taken, as well as suggest several avenues of research that could help strengthen the evidence base on exploitation in the global economy.

What do we know?

First, let’s review: this report has explored the structural root causes of forced labour in global supply chains. Our core message has been that those roots lie in systemic features of the contemporary global political economy, and that forced labour cannot be successfully tackled without changing these dynamics.

The mechanics and structures of the contemporary global economy create both a ‘supply’ of vulnerable workers and a business ‘demand’ for their labour. On the supply side, the key dynamics include poverty, social discrimination, limited labour protection, and restrictive mobility regimes. These, both on their own and in interaction with each other, create a global workforce vulnerable to exploitation. On the demand side, what matters most is the concentration of wealth and ownership, the business models structuring supply chains, major firms’ power to dictate the rules of global production, and the manifold governance gaps which make the business of exploitation not only viable but profitable.

These features of the world economy have not evolved spontaneously. Rather, they have been set in motion or catalysed by elite-led processes of neoliberal globalisation that have dramatically changed approaches to economic regulation. States have been fundamental to their institutionalisation, curtailing the structural and individual power of workers to say no and intensifying the structural and individual power of employers to compel them to accept dangerous, risky, and exploitative work. This means that the root causes of forced labour are fundamentally and inherently political.

It follows that states and political institutions must take responsibility and push towards genuine solutions. On the supply side, this means tackling distributional questions about poverty and inequality, creating and enforcing meaningful forms of labour and social protection, and responding humanely to the complex dynamics of migration. On the demand side, it means grappling with the dynamics of subcontracting and outsourcing, including in long, complex and informal labour supply chains. It also means asking fundamental questions about the role and power of corporations in the twenty-first century.

What do we still need to learn?

Much is known about the political economy of forced labour, but even more remains to be learned. We need detailed, in-depth and comparative research, with a special focus on causes as well as on the people, institutions and organisations that make the causes of forced labour possible. Below are a few of the key themes that are most urgent for scholars and activists to address.

Political economic policy: It is clear that states produce the conditions needed for forced labour to remain part of many profitable business models, even as sitting governments claim to champion anti-slavery causes. They do this through their political and economic policies relating to labour markets, to immigration and to the regulation of firms. Further research is needed to establish the links between political economic policy frameworks and the prevalence of forced labour and exploitation.

Corporate self-regulation: We know that allowing businesses to police themselves is not enough and we know that the non-enforcement of labour standards helps make forced labour a viable business model. However, further research is needed to understand when, why and how public and private governance of labour standards fall short, and to establish which alternative models of governance could address these failings.

Inequality: The widespread use of forced labour in the contemporary global economy is rarely linked to soaring inequality. Yet our research has led us to believe that the two trends are strongly connected. Although neoliberal discourses have effectively divorced ‘poverty’ from ‘inequality’, arguing that only the former is a problem,[1, 2] the latest research on inequality[3, 4, 5, 6] and the social nature of power[7, 8] suggests that inequality is in fact causally related to poverty, with higher rates of inequality worsening deprivation. Further research is needed to understand how income and wealth inequality influence the prevalence of forced labour, as well as to explore forms of wealth redistribution that can successfully address it.

Beyond these big questions, it is also clear that we need focused research into specific supply chains. Scholars must map the length, breadth and depth of individual chains to parse out the distributions of profit and value between actors along the chain, as well as the labour practices linked to these patterns of distribution.

What is to be done?

Thankfully, although more work is needed, a wealth of struggles from all over the globe are pointing the way towards policies and actions able to push back against the root causes of forced labour. Although these neither form a cohesive global movement nor work from a single overarching theory, they include promising initiatives that together form the pillars of an emerging framework for pushing beyond our current neoliberal impasse. Below, we explore a number of promising initiatives to address both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ factors that we have identified.

Enforcement of labour standards and innovative, worker-led models: An immediate and obvious starting point for better enforcement of labour standards is for states to reverse the labour reforms pushed through by neoliberalisation and to drastically increase both the size and mandate of their labour inspectorates. This will require altering budgetary priorities in favour of workers and their rights. Other promising strategies to bolster workplace standards and decrease exploitation include: the creation of penalties for businesses who violate labour standards, such as Brazil’s ‘dirty list’ for companies found to have used forced labour;[9] targeted enforcement of labour standards in sectors and portions of the supply chain with the highest risks of exploitation;[10] and the protection of collective action and the right to organise.[11] Given the growing evidence that these new strategies are effective in reducing exploitative practices in supply chains, their potential to reduce forced labour should be investigated and bolstered further.

However, in recent years, as governmental monitoring and enforcement of labour standards has decreased, workers’ organisations and advocacy groups have pioneered their own alternative strategies to protect workers from exploitation. These include innovative models of labour standards enforcement, such as formally including unions and workers’ centres as monitors. Found mainly in low-wage sectors in the United States,[12, 13] these models of “co-produced enforcement”[14] have led to decreases in wage theft, unsafe working conditions, discrimination and gender-based violence, and have facilitated the refunds of illegal wage deductions to workers.[15] The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organisation based in Florida, has pioneered this type of worker-led labour standards enforcement[16] and underpinned it with a worker-drafted code of conduct agreed to by partner firms. Worker-driven social responsibility initiatives have been demonstrated to protect and improve conditions for vulnerable and low-wage workers. As such, they should replace traditional, industry-led corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives – the shortcomings of which have been well-documented – to address forced labour in supply chains.

As governmental monitoring and enforcement of labour standards has decreased, workers’ organisations and advocacy groups have pioneered their own alternative strategies to protect workers from exploitation.

Value re-distribution and living wages in global supply chains: Activists and workers’ organisations are putting forward a number of novel bargaining strategies to capture a greater share of the value they help to produce, and to achieve living wages in global supply chains. One example is the Asia Floor Wage Campaign,[17] a regional initiative to establish a living wage for garment workers across Asia by bargaining with big brands at the helm of clothing and apparel supply chains. By raising the wage floor for all workers within a regional sector, this type of initiative could reduce the demand for forced labour in global supply chains since it ensures workers get a larger share of the pie.

Increased public goods provision and basic income: If being poor increases a person’s vulnerability to forced labour, then policies that reduce poverty will likely reduce the supply of people vulnerable to exploitation. In the age of neoliberalism, with public goods privatised and social protections rolled back, the obvious option is to reverse the neoliberal trend – pushing towards increased social protection, stronger safety nets, more extensive public goods provision, and greater redistribution of wealth.

One potential option for doing this is Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). UBI is defined as a regular payment given to all people without means test or work requirement. It seeks to give all people a solid material base, which could in turn provide them with the monetary security they need to walk away from forced labour. Although it has long been theoretically attractive,[18] it is now increasingly being tested empirically. UBI is currently being piloted in several locations around the world, and the recent results of a UNICEF trial in India are arresting.[19] There, UBI led to an increase in economic activity among the poor and generated improvements in health and welfare indicators ranging from nutrition to sanitation. Its effects also worked against traditional axes of discrimination, resulting in greater benefits for women and the poor than men and the wealthy. Most significantly, however, it engendered a clear decrease in debt bondage, as poor villagers were able either to pay off their debts or to accumulate sufficient cash reserves to avoid indebting themselves in the first place. Given these results, the potential of UBI to contribute to a decreased supply of vulnerable workers should be further explored, in particular with populations vulnerable to or currently experiencing exploitative or forced labour.

Yet cash alone may never be enough. For this reason, we must also explore modalities for the provision of basic needs outside of market relations, such as cooperative natural resource management, land redistribution and legally enshrined guarantees of the means of subsistence to all.

Better immigration policies and the ‘employer pays’ principle: If punitive mobility and border control regimes facilitate the use of forced labour, then it follows that policies to ensure safe passage and improve conditions and rules for migrant workers must play an important role in curtailing the supply of workers vulnerable to forced labour. Around the world, migrant workers and migrant rights organisations are pushing for better policies and protections to address the exploitation and untimely death[20] of migrant workers. They are pioneering strategies to protect and empower migrant workers from forced labour. One promising idea that features in many such strategies is the “employer pays principle”.[21] This recognises that many migrant workers are made vulnerable by the recruitment and service fees they pay to obtain jobs, and seeks to alter that dynamic by shifting the financial burden of recruitment to the employers instead.

Efforts to address the vulnerabilities shaped by immigration policy must be closely intertwined with the robust labour standards enforcement systems described above. As Janice Fine and Gregory Lyon, both professors at Rutgers University, have argued, “preventing the exploitation of vulnerable low-wage immigrant workers requires integrating into immigration reform proposals significantly strengthened labour standards enforcement”.[22] We must be careful though. While all of these strategies are promising methods of curtailing the immediate crisis of widespread worker vulnerability to forced labour, they do not fundamentally transform the power dynamics between employers and workers, nor do they disrupt the political economic processes – such as inequality, immiseration, privatisation or land enclosure – that shape the global political economy.

Efforts to address the vulnerabilities shaped by immigration policy must be closely intertwined with the robust labour standards enforcement systems.

Better governance, including a binding global convention on labour standards in supply chains: Traditional, national, regulatory frameworks – particularly where they are poorly enforced – have proved insufficient for governing labour standards in global supply chains. Put less kindly, they frequently facilitate the use of forced labour by overseas suppliers in global supply chains, and obstruct efforts to hold multinational corporations (MNCs) accountable for the exploitation involved in the creation of their products.[23] Stronger governance is needed to effectively curtail MNCs’ ability to legally distance themselves from the abuse and exploitation inherent to their business models and triggered by their purchasing practices.

Activists have called for a binding global convention on labour standards in supply chains to close existing legal gaps and loopholes.[24] Their demand is backed by mounting evidence that direct MNC accountability for working conditions in their global supply chains is effective in combatting exploitation. For instance, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,[25] signed by major garment companies following the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, has led to improved safety, stronger labour rights and reduced exploitation. Stronger governance – including through initiatives that establish legally binding accountability for lead firms for working conditions along their entire supply chain – is a promising strategy to address the business demand for forced labour.

Joint employer and intermediary liability: The rise of labour market intermediaries – including labour providers and contractors, labour agencies, and ‘gangmasters’ – means that today, a large number of workers are working under the supervision and management of companies who are not technically their employer. As this report has documented, such workers often face challenges when seeking to organise, bargain or access labour protection, and in some contexts they are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation.

In the United States, a wave of recent court decisions across national and state jurisdictions have confirmed that companies and labour market intermediaries can be ‘joint employers’, in other words, that companies using temporary staffing agencies, labour providers, and other sub-contracting arrangements are not insulated from responsibility for those workers’ conditions. Trade unions and workers’ organisations are pushing for broad application of the joint liability principle[26] in relation to global supply chains. The International Trade Union Confederation, for instance, has called for multinational brands to accept joint responsibility for working conditions in their global supply chains, particularly around wages and health and safety.

Such campaigns are promising and deserving of support. An important challenge in this work, however, is enforcement and implementation. As the lawyer and scholar JJ Rosenbaum has argued, “business entities expand their use of contingent work arrangements because these arrangements lower labour costs and in practice often shield liability even when the law says otherwise. The power of a joint employer liability legal regime – whether USDOL, ILO or any other – rests significantly in the effectiveness of its enforcement arm”.[27]

Anti-discrimination measures and ‘positive action’: Chapter 5 explained that discrimination on the basis of race, caste and gender is fundamental to forced labour. These hierarchies intersect with class and other forms of inequality to heighten some people’s vulnerability to exploitation vis-à-vis others’. A systematic political response to their heightened vulnerability will necessarily have to address these systems root and branch – challenging the patriarchy, racism, white supremacy, and so on. Doing so will undoubtedly be complex. But examples of state-led ‘positive action’ do exist. Economic reforms include equal pay legislation, recruitment quotas, and well-enforced anti-discrimination legislation. ‘Social’ measures with economic effects include parliamentary quotas for previously discriminated against groups, reparations, or the provision of preferential public service access. Further initiatives can be taken beyond the state-level, and support for community self-organisation and collective action is key. The Self-Employed Women’s Association are a great example of the power of this in India.[28]

Restrictions on subcontracting: Subcontracting introduces inherent risks into supply chains by limiting lead firms’ liability for working conditions and by reinforcing low prices as the key to suppliers’ success.[29] The evidence documented in this report compels us to question whether it will be possible to eradicate forced labour from global supply chains without alterating this low-cost business model.

Conclusion

The ILO’s Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) urges that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. These conditions are profoundly undermined by the immiserating processes of uneven global neoliberalisation. Those processes, which result in clear inequities and injustices, reveal how little “the attainment of the conditions in which this shall be possible … constitute the central aim of national and international policy”. The opposite indeed seems to be the case, with the consequence that millions worldwide are being denied the freedom to say no to exploitative work.

It is time for that to change. With the Eighth Sustainable Development Goal, the world has committed to taking all necessary steps to achieve “decent work for all” and to “end forced labour” by the end of the next decade. Alliance 8.7 has been established to maintain momentum towards that target, and governments worldwide are making pledges that they will meet it. Here, we outline a number of critical strategies that can help them to meet that goal. Ultimately, if we are serious about addressing unfreedom in the global economy, then we need to think seriously about political economy. We need to confront and tackle root causes.


  1. R. Wilkinson & K, Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London: Allen Lane. ↩︎
  2. B. Selwyn (2014) The Global Development Crisis, Cambridge: Polity Press. ↩︎
  3. R. Wilkinson & K, Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. ↩︎
  4. T. Piketty (2013) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ↩︎
  5. T. Piketty (2015) The Economics of Inequality, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ↩︎
  6. Oxfam (2017) ‘An Economy for the 99%’. ↩︎
  7. See work by sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1984; 1990; 1998; 1999; 2001). ↩︎
  8. D. Mosse (2010) ‘A relational approach to durable poverty, inequality and power’, Journal of Development Studies, 46(7), 1156-1178. ↩︎
  9. J. Fine (2015) ‘Co-Production: Bringing Together the Unique Capabilities of Government and Society for Stronger Labor Standards Enforcement’, LIFT Fund. ↩︎
  10. D. Weil (2010) ‘Improving Workplace Conditions through Strategic Enforcement’, A Report to the Wage and Hour Division. ↩︎
  11. M. Anner (2011) Solidarity Transformed, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ↩︎
  12. J. Fine & J. Gordon (2010) ‘Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement through Partnerships with Workers’ Organizations’, Politics & Society, 34(4), 552-585. ↩︎
  13. J. Fine (2015) ‘Co-Production: Bringing Together the Unique Capabilities of Government and Society for Stronger Labor Standards Enforcement’. ↩︎
  14. Lift Fund, ‘Co-Production: Bringing Together the Unique Capabilities of Government and Society for Stronger Labor Standards Enforcement’. ↩︎
  15. Ibid. ↩︎
  16. Fair Food Program. ↩︎
  17. Asia Floor Wage, ‘What it is and why we need one’. ↩︎
  18. K. Widerquist, ‘Basic income’s third wave’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  19. Davala et al. (2015) Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India, London: Bloomsbury Publishing. ↩︎
  20. D. Conn (2017) ‘Thousands of Qatar World Cup workers ‘subjected to life-threatening heat’’, The Guardian. ↩︎
  21. Institute for Human Rights and Business, ‘The Employer Pays Principle’. ↩︎
  22. J. Fine & G. Lyon (2017) ‘Segmentation and the Role of Labor Standards Enforcement in Immigration ReformJournal on Migration and Human Security, 5(2), 431-451. ↩︎
  23. F. Lawrence (2015) ‘Costco and CP Foods face lawsuit over alleged slavery in prawn supply chain’, The Guardian. ↩︎
  24. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (2016) ‘Roundtable: do we need a binding convention on decent work in global supply chains?↩︎
  25. Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. ↩︎
  26. B. Rogers (2011) ‘Toward Third-Party Liability for Wage Theft’, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, 31(1), 1-64. ↩︎
  27. J. J. Rosenbaum (2016) ‘Guest Post: 2016 Steps Forward on Joint Employer Liability’, On Labor. ↩︎
  28. C. Thibos & N. Nayak (2017) ‘Informal, but organised: the 30-year success of the Self Employed Women's Association of India’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. ↩︎
  29. G. LeBaron (2014) ‘Subcontracting is not illegal. But is it unethical?Brown Journal of World Affairs, 20(2), 237-249. ↩︎
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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