Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

All of the above and a lot more in protecting the world’s workers

POLICY DEBATE: Good legislation is essential, but effective enforcement and corporate investment can be just as important, argues Houtan Homayounpour from the International Labour Organisation.

Houtan Homanyounpour
13 September 2016, 12.01am
Garment workers having lunch at one factory in Phnom Penh.
ILO in Asia and the Pacific//

Houtan Homayounpour, Technical Specialist within the Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labour at the ILO, MAYBE.

I, amongst many other colleagues working in this area, wish there was a simple yes or no answer!

Could binding legislation alone rescue the estimated 21 million forced labourers and would it be sufficient for preventing others from falling into the same trap? Can we expect legislation to cover all aspects of forced labour, modern-day slavery, and global supply chains? Modern-day slavery has yet to be defined by an international instrument. Good legislation is always essential, but enforcement is just as important.

We have seen binding legislation fall short in protecting the most vulnerable. We have also witnessed the ineffectiveness of self-regulation and self-disclosure programs.

What is the purpose of binding legislation, if it is not or cannot be enforced due to corruption, lack of capacity, or willingness? At the same time, the dynamics of forced labour vary from one country to another, meaning that there is no one size fits all solution.

The 2014 International Labor Conference (ILC) adopted a Protocol and a series of Recommendations to complement the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention No. 29 from 1930. Its purpose is to take a more comprehensive approach to forced labour by focusing on prevention, protection and remedy – issues which were not addressed by the 1930 Forced Labour Convention.

Some would be surprised to learn that the world is still struggling with slavery and still trying to come up with the most appropriate way to eradicate this problem. How could it be possible, that today we have about 21 million slaves generating $150 billion of profits annually?!

Why is this relevant for businesses and their supply chains?

Companies, especially multinational buyers, have a strong business interest in not being linked to forced or compulsory labour, especially through supply chain activities. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that “the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights refers to internationally recognised human rights – understood, at a minimum, as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights as set out in the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work”. This encompasses ILO Conventions 29 and 105, as they are part of the eight ILO core Conventions and are the basis of the fundamental principle of elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour. Consequently, as the Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 is supplementing Convention 29, the ‘business responsibility to respect’ is automatically linked to the Protocol.

It is no secret that the sustained suppression of forced or compulsory labour contributes to ensuring fair competition.

The Protocol and the Recommendation take a very inclusive approach and put special emphasis on the engagement and support of employers’ organisations and businesses. Article 1 of the Protocol states that national action plans should be elaborated in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organisations. Article 2 of the Protocol calls for support in due diligence by both the public and private sectors to prevent and respond to risks of forced or compulsory labour. The Protocol and the Recommendation open up new possibilities for business to be fully included in the development of state policies with regard to forced labour, and to receive the support needed in fulfilling the expectation to protect the rights of workers.

It is no secret that the sustained suppression of forced or compulsory labour contributes to ensuring fair competition. The Protocol and Recommendation thereby establish a common framework, strategy and a set of measures, which can effectively eliminate all forms of forced labour.

More recently, at the 105th Session of the ILC in Geneva, a tripartite committee discussed the topic of ‘Decent Work in Global Supply Chains’ over a two-week period. As one would expect, the discussions were not always easy. However the Committee managed to successfully conclude its work with the adoption of a Resolution. This Resolution asks the ILO to review this issue and convene, as soon as appropriate, by decision of the Governing Body, a technical tripartite meeting or meeting of experts to:

(a) Assess the failures that lead to decent work deficits in global supply chains;

(b) Identify the salient challenges of governance to achieving decent work in global supply chains;

(c) Consider what guidance, programmes, measures, initiatives or standards are needed to promote said work.

The committee also concluded that “Global supply chains are complex, diverse and fragmented” and that “the presence of child labour and forced labour in some global supply chains is acute in the lower segments of the chain. Migrant workers and homeworkers are found in many global supply chains and may face various forms of discrimination and limited or no legal protection”.

As one can see, ending forced labour and modern slavery is no easy task! And on the question of whether it requires binding legislation, rather than corporate self-regulation and self-disclosure, I would say the best approach may be “all of the above and a lot more”.

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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