Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

A binding convention on decent work: the first step to workers' rights

POLICY DEBATE: Law is nothing without enforcement, and no better compliance monitor exists than the workers' themselves, argues Cathy Feingold of the AFL-CIO.

Cathy Feingold
13 September 2016
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Cathy Feingold, International Director, AFL-CIO, YES

From electronics factories in Malaysia, to Brazilian sugar cane fields and the seafood industry in the United States, millions of workers are victims of forced labour. In total, almost 21 million people toil under conditions of forced labour, the majority exploited by private enterprises. A new global regulatory architecture – underpinned by the enactment of binding legislation – is necessary in order to promote corporate accountability.

Currently, the structure of the global economy relies on cheap and exploited labour, which in many cases encourages the use of forced labour. Forced labour is rooted in an intentional corporate strategy that seeks to maximise profits, lower wages, and avoid accountability at the expense of workers’ rights. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the total illegal profit gained through the use of forced labour amounts to $150.2 billion per year. Major brands are often complicit in this system when they pressure suppliers, subcontractors, and labour recruiters to keep costs low, while turning a blind eye to the exploitation that contributes to vast corporate profits.

Increased reputational risk and worker campaigns have moved many brands to develop extensive non-binding corporate social responsibility programs (CSR). These programs can take many forms, including due diligence, a commitment to self-monitoring, and references to ILO standards. In practice, CSR initiatives are only as effective as the companies allow them to be and they frequently lack transparency. Further, they are rarely enforceable without a union in the workplace that empowers workers to monitor their own conditions and hold their employers accountable to address violations.

Voluntary CSR programs cannot replace worker voices. Without the right to freedom of association, the unequal power relationship between workers and their employers cannot be addressed. Under voluntary programs, there are no real consequences for violations of workers’ rights and no challenge to the corporate paradigm that encourages exploitation and forced labour. Unless enforceable rules are created with real penalties, the chances of achieving the systemic changes necessary to eradicate forced labour are negligible.

Voluntary CSR programs cannot replace worker voices.

The current structure of supply chains must be transformed. An important first step to developing a new global regulatory architecture would be the creation of an ILO convention on global supply chains. This would require governments to hold corporations accountable for human and worker rights in their supply chains and create binding arbitration mechanisms. A convention on global supply chains would address the deficits in CSR approaches, since it would establish greater corporate accountability for working conditions and clarify the roles and responsibilities of suppliers, buyers, and other intermediaries in ensuring labour rights. The transnational nature of supply chains necessitates new global standards and cooperation, not just in corporate governance, but also to address the root causes of forced labour through inclusive development and the promotion of decent work.

This new global regulatory architecture must be supported by complementary domestic legislation. To begin, states should ratify and implement the provisions of the 2014 protocol to the ILO Convention on Forced Labour (C29). The protocol and its accompanying recommendation calls for states to prevent forced labour through measures such as enhancing social protection floors to reduce the vulnerability of workers, labour law enforcement, regulating recruitment and subcontracting arrangements, and providing protection and effective remedies to victims. To effectively eradicate forced labour and transform the conditions that lead to ongoing worker rights violations, states must also effectively implement laws protecting freedom of association.

National and sub-national laws can further address governance gaps in supply chains through transparency and reporting requirements, extending labour law coverage, and imposing procurement and tariff restrictions. States should make human rights due diligence mandatory for corporations consistent with the United Nations Guiding Principles and related OECD Guidelines. Additionally, the prohibition of trading or procuring goods and services connected to child or forced labour is an important tool to combat forced labour, as seen in recent actions taken by the U.K. and the U.S. In many cases, such as in California, subnational governments have stepped up to the challenge of ending forced labour by creating laws requiring brand reporting on anti-trafficking efforts, providing labour law protection to vulnerable workers, and creating regulations for employment intermediaries.

By taking action at the global, national and local levels, governments, corporations, and workers can transform the rules of the global economy for the 21 million victims of forced labour. Experiences over last two decades have demonstrated that CSR approaches are insufficient to tackle this global challenge. Workers demand a new approach to regulation and enforcement at the international level that must be complemented by laws and regulations that address the root causes of forced labour, punish those responsible for its use, and compensate and empower workers. Anything less than binding legislation would be an abdication of state and corporate responsibility.

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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