Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

An international convention on decent work won't be a silver bullet

POLICY DEBATE: Binding legislation against labour abuse in supply chains can't hurt, but we already have plenty of weapons in the fight for decent work, argues Anna de Courcy of the Freedom Fund.

Anna de Courcy Wheeler
13 September 2016
Workers in metal industry, Taixing, Jiangsu Province, China.
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ILO in Asia and the Pacific//flickr.cc(by-nc-nd)

Anna de Courcy Wheeler, Senior Programme Officer for the Freedom Fund, YES

For those seeking to protect and enforce labour rights, binding global legislation seems to be a clear and natural goal. However, the problem of entrenched slavery and forced labour in our supply chains is far from simple. Modern global supply chains are woven into an often-shifting and expanding web of suppliers, contractors, subcontractors and subsidiaries. These chains epitomise the complexities of our modern, interconnected world, and they present practical challenges which are unlikely to be resolved via a single legislative solution.

From a global standpoint, a new international convention on human rights due diligence in supply chains – one that would require governments to legislate efforts to fight modern-day slavery and forced labour in supply chains – has a great deal to recommend it. Such a convention could set global legally binding standards, as opposed to allowing for the propagation of piecemeal and inconsistent self-disclosure regulations. Such a piecemeal model could not only leave gaps in worker protections, it could also create an additional burden for multinational enterprises to report under different regimes. An international convention would also level the playing field for the businesses that are invested in bringing transparency to their supply chains and tackling modern-day slavery and forced labour.

The enforcement of such legislation would, however, be a tough uphill struggle. Modern-day slavery and forced labour have deep social and economic roots that cannot simply be legislated away, since they thrive upon a potent combination of individual vulnerability and marginalisation, the demand for cheap labour, and limited rule of law protections. Many governments whose populations are the most vulnerable to exploitation are just as unable as they as they are unwilling to act. Their governance structures are too weak, their levels of corruption seriously corrosive, and their enforcement powers woefully lacking. Even in cases where there is political will there is nonetheless a further risk of commitments being undermined by apparently conflicting choices. Government officials can feel that they face a choice between reinforcing their sovereignty and protecting their citizens and cultivating a permissive and low-cost labour sector to attract international businesses and investments.

Modern slavery cannot be stamped out through corporate self-regulation alone.

In the absence of a binding international convention, legislation designed to increase the transparency of supply chains has, alongside journalistic exposés, made significant progress in raising the profile of labour exploitation and putting it on both the political map and the boardroom table. The U.K’s Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency Act, though essentially ‘light touch’ laws requiring the optional cooperation of businesses, have nonetheless helped move the discussion forward. Most importantly, they have introduced the idea that modern-day slavery and forced labour constitute serious risks in global supply chains. Certainly these risks are growing – just from criminal and civil prosecutions, but also from consumer pressure as labour abuses become more broadly publicised.

Yet, as promising as developments compelling business self-disclosure and transparency may appear, modern slavery cannot be stamped out through corporate self-regulation alone. Transparency statements under the British and California legislation have been mixed in quality, with too many falling woefully short. Consequentially, governments are faced with the challenge of doing more to hold businesses accountable – potentially by developing transparency laws so that they encompass mandatory action. Transparency legislation is a step in the right direction, but remains far from being the end goal.

It is here, I would argue, that binding legislation and corporate self-regulation need not be seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. Rather, they can be mutually reinforcing in producing immediate and lasting effects that take into account the prevailing political and governance realities, while simultaneously bolstering the protection of the rights of the world’s most exploited workers. In addition, they are not the only tools to effect corporate change: strategic litigation, investigative journalism, frontline prevention efforts, and consumer mobilisation can all play a significant role in pushing slavery to complete extinction.

Building upon existing legislation may currently offer the best hope for change, at least in the short term, but we should not abandon the long-term goal of developing global binding legislation. The reality is that slavery in supply chains and non-compliance with voluntary standards such as the United Nations Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights remains the norm. A binding international standard on supply chain due diligence could therefore significantly help in closing the enormous accountability gap. Many human rights conventions have begun as aspirational, but with time, international standards and norms have the power to erode government abuses and their resistance to change. In the meantime, the anti-slavery movement has many other weapons in its arsenal.

This debate was produced in conjunction with Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

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