Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The fight for decent work: a need for new models

Workers usually organise within their sector, if at all. But in today’s economy, could a community-wide approach could be more effective?

Penelope Kyritsis Uma Rani
21 August 2017

Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Can you tell us your name and what you do.

I’m Uma Rani, and I work at the research department of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a senior development economist. I work on issues related to the informal economy, poverty, inequality, and global supply chains, and much more recently on new forms of work, like the gig platform economy. So this is my area of expertise and I look at it from a development economist’s perspective.

Penelope: And in your work what have you seen as the biggest obstacles for addressing labour exploitation in global supply chains?

Uma: What I've seen, to a very large extent, is wage theft. Especially down the supply chain, in the informal economy, and with those engaged in home work. The wage is not being paid. You also get a fraction of the minimum wage, if the minimum wage exists in these countries. The second issue includes harassment, the amount of work required, and the fear that is put into workers' minds regarding having to report that kind of exploitation.

The state has to create an atmosphere that not only allows businesses to operate but also allows workers to get their due rights.

There are a couple of challenges that are there. The biggest challenge is that of wage theft, where workers – especially down the supply chain, in the informal economy, and those engaged in home work – do not get the wages due to them. The second issue is about the time that people work. There's a lot of intensification of work that's taking place, there's too much overtime that's taking place. And again, the wages that are paid to these workers are minimal. They don't even live up to the minimum wage – they're only a fraction of it.

The third challenge is quite an important challenge, and it's very difficult to address. It's the fear that has been generated among these workers about having to report any of these activities outside of the workplace. They fear that, if they do, they might lose a job, they might not get the contracts, or that this whole work would disappear. That's something that organisations, and especially organising workers and unions, need to address.

Penelope: What do you see as the role of the state in protecting workers’ rights?

Uma: Actually I would think that there are different parties that need to take responsibility regarding protecting the rights of workers.

The state has to create an atmosphere that not only allows businesses to operate but also allows workers to get their due rights. There are some attempts being made to do that, for example in Brazil, where they have put into place a labour inspection system in the global supply chain. This tries to address whether workers get their wages, how overtime is being dealt with, and a whole lot of other issues.

The results are quite interesting, even though they are not complete and we cannot say this is a success story. But what we see is that many of the workers in the supply chains get 2.5 times that of the minimum wage. We see that the hours of work are 40-45 hours whereas in other places, it is over 60 hours of work. And we see a lot more compliance and an opportunity for these workers to unionise.


Garment worker in Lao PDR. ILO/Jean‐Pierre Pellissier/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I guess one of the reasons you see these impacts is that there is a very strong labour union movement in Brazil. You also have a government that is very responsible and responsive to the demands of the workers. I think that plays a very important role in ensuring that the workers in the supply chains get their due benefits.

While the state plays an important role, you need different or new forms of organisation today to address how to organise workers in the global supply chains. Traditionally this has been done at the sector level. One way of going about it could be trying to organise them as a community, with community-based groups trying to organisers workers as a whole. Often workers tread between different sectors, they don’t only work in one sector. So what can be done is to organise them as a group in a community, to make them realise what their rights are, and to help them fight for their rights.

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