Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

All about the money

A commonly overlooked but very simple mechanism for promoting decent work in global supply chains is to improve the recovery of unpaid wages.

Nick Clark
8 June 2016
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Joe Brusky/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

The notion of decent work is, to me, a curious one. It rests on the assumption that there is a level of exploitation which is ‘fair’. Thus a certain portion of a worker’s labour power can legitimately be appropriated by her employer, but if they take any more it becomes exploitative, and subject to labels such as ‘trafficking’ or ‘forced labour’. Many an argument can be had over where the line of ‘decency’ can be drawn, and no doubt these will once again be rehearsed at the ongoing ILC.

But perhaps it is not necessary to decide just how bad things get in a working relationship before supra-governmental action is justified. Perhaps dealing with a more fundamental element of the work/wage bargain might help.

When the state intervenes the recovery of lost wages is often a secondary consideration.

Let us start with what might seem self-evident: why do workers participate in supply chains? It’s reasonable to assume that most do so because they believe that their labour power (almost certainly their only asset) will be exchanged for the means to survive, to support their families, and perhaps to save a little towards improving their lives.

But things don’t always work out that way. A key (and frequently encountered) feature of forced labour is the failure of the employer to pay all, or any, of the wages the worker was promised. When the state intervenes in such cases, however, the recovery of those wages is often a secondary consideration. Civil recovery (where possible) mostly takes second place to criminal prosecution. Often there aren’t the resources to meet outstanding wage obligations, and funds impounded by the state where criminal activity is suspected may go towards the cost of enforcement. In some cases, unlawful employment relationships may disbar workers from making any claims under contract or minimum wage legislation in the first place. So, workers know that complaining about their abuse may well cause a bad situation to get worse.

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jeevs sinclair/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Anyone who has dealt with dismissal cases in tribunals or labour courts will know that these bureaucratic issues are a problem. The time taken, the stress involved, and the low chance of success (let alone, as in the case of Britain, the cost) are likely to deter all but the most determined claimants. The research that I’m currently conducting suggests that even straightforward claims for unpaid wages can take six months or more to resolve, and may remain unpaid even when a judgement is obtained.

Minimum wage cases pursued by state inspectors in the UK in the year 2014-15 took an average of just over 11 weeks to settle – which is a very long time for the lowest paid workers. For those caught up in ‘trafficking’ cases, we might be talking about years before a judgement, with the issue of unpaid wages probably not even featuring in the state’s litigation strategy.

Make it easier for workers to get the money that they are owed.

What can we do about this? How can this information be used to promote better work lower down the supply chain? The answer should be as obvious as the one above regarding why workers work in the first place – they need money, so make it easier for them to get the money that they are owed. If you can do this, you will surely increase the likelihood of workers reporting offences. And if the parties at the ILC can agree on the primacy of doing this, then they will have taken a big step forward in promoting decent work.

Moreover, this shouldn’t actually be all that difficult to put into practice. For example, instead of requiring the individual worker to lodge a costly and protracted claim, the state could take on the role of pursuing the delinquent employer for the money, having first compensated the worker. And if the ultimate user of the workers’ output – the main contractor or the brand at the top of the supply chain – were to find themselves pursued for any outstanding sums, might they not be more diligent in vetting their supply chain?

It is impossible to give workers back the labour power that has been stolen from them, but it is entirely possible to replace their missing wages, not as an alternative to punishing criminal behaviour by employers, but as an encouragement to abused workers to seek restitution.

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