Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Addressing severe exploitation: a critical view of awareness and transparency initiatives

Awareness and transparency initiatives are thought to be vital tools in the fight against labour exploitation and 'trafficking'. This guest series looks at several such projects and asks, do they work? 

Letizia Palumbo Anna Triandafyllidou
24 May 2016

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013. Living-Learning Programs/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The promotion of transparency and accountability is at the centre of strategies to prevent and address labour exploitation and trafficking. The instruments adopted for this end are diverse, including awareness campaigns, certificates of fair work, and licenses, and they involve various actors such as workers, employers, companies, labour providers, consumers, and the general public.

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities”, and also to “prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products, or services by their relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts”. Increasing transparency in supply chains would ensure employees, consumers, and general public have information about companies’ efforts to prevent human rights violations. This would allow consumers to have greater confidence in the products and service they buy, and, simultaneously, would allow companies to raise awareness and understanding of their respective obligations.

Many governments have adopted transparency and disclosure regulations, and some corporations have implemented voluntary codes of conduct and other corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions. At the same time, associations and NGOs have developed campaigns to pressure corporations, through boycotts and negative publicity, to clean up their supply chains.

However, severe exploitation takes different shapes in different sectors. Thus while in agriculture or manufacture the business context is clear, this is not the case in domestic work where employers hardly conceive of themselves as such. They are usually families and the activities involved do not produce any financial gain, so the exploitation that can still be there is not always immediately obvious.

By highlighting the complexities of the diverse sectors and the specific roles and responsibilities of the actors involved, contributions to this special series explore a variety of current awareness and prevention tools, critically examining their current and potential impact and their capacity to effectively undermine the relations of power which give rise to severe labour exploitation.

The articles

The series starts with a contribution by from Anna Triandafyllidou and Sabrina Marchetti, who explore the peculiar position of employers in the domestic work sector as market and family actors, highlighting how employers in this sector rarely consider themselves as such. The authors argue that the employers of paid domestic workers may be classified into two main categories: ‘employers as agents of social change’ and ‘employers as preservers of traditions’. In both cases, especially when the regulation of domestic work is inadequate, violations of workers rights as well as abuse of their conditions of vulnerability may easily occur. In order to effectively prevent and address these situations, it is necessary, according to Triandafyllidou and Marchetti, to develop awareness campaigns that make the employers reflect on fair conditions of work for domestic workers.

The issue of campaigns is also addressed by Nobert Cyrus, who argues that while in recent years there has been a large number of awareness campaigns on human trafficking, little is known about their effectiveness and impact. This is mainly due to a lack of evaluation. Cyrus points out that in order to limit the risk of unintended outcomes or side-effects undermining the goals of campaigns, sponsors of these initiatives should take more seriously their responsibility for evaluation.


National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013. Living-Learning Programs/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Claire Falconer analyses laws on transparency in supply chains in the UK and the US, highlighting how they both place business at the centre of the solution to exploitation. This approach may risk diverting attention away from wider issues that contribute to workers’ vulnerability – such as migration policy, discrimination and labour market deregulation. At the same time, it may allow governments to not assume their responsibility to prevent forced labour and the many crimes often classified as ‘trafficking’, and to protect the rights of workers. Falconer argues that transparency initiatives need to go hand in hand with a strengthening of labour inspections and enforcement of labour standards, and with actions aimed at building accountability within the supply chain.

Thanos Maroukis focuses on the UK Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which regulates labour providers through a licensing scheme aimed at protecting workers in agriculture, horticulture, shellfish and associated food processing industries in the UK. Maroukis points out that while the GLA has played an important role in mitigating labour exploitation at the British end of agricultural sector supply chains, sustaining these achievements, as well as the possibility of propagating them into other sectors, are compromised by the UK public policy priorities on immigration enforcement compared to labour law enforcement, and by developments in labour sourcing countries.

Letizia Palumbo critically examines the supply transparency measures in Italy, looking carefully at ‘the network of quality agricultural work’ (‘rete del lavoro agricolo di qualità’) recently launched by the government. This network aims to develop a list of agricultural companies that respect fair working conditions and to provide them with a certification of quality. Palumbo highlights the limited impact of this instrument, arguing that it does very little to address and challenge the relations of power that characterise supply chains and lead to workers’ rights violations and exploitation.

Focusing the attention on campaigns for clean supply chains in agriculture, Antonello Mangano illustrates the activities of the campaign #FilieriaSporca in Italy. Denouncing exploitation as a structural problem, functional to both criminal and industrial economy, the campaign #FilieraSporca explores all the stages within supply chains with the hope of fostering social corporate accountability.

Finally, Alexandra Ricard-Guay investigates the efforts regarding labour exploitation and trafficking in Canada. He argues that while immigration policies have gone through important changes over the last few years, a reform in low-skill labour migration streams has made workers vulnerable to exploitation, and very little has been done in terms of prevention.

This series was made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundations.

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