Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

No either/or between business and government, both need to do better

Eradicating forced labour and modern slavery from global supply chains requires both business and government effort, argues Lara White of the International Organisation for Migration.

Lara White
13 September 2016
Garment workers walking to canteen to have lunch.
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ILO in Asia and the Pacific//flickr.cc(by-nc-nd)

Lara White, Senior Labour Migration Specialist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNSURE.

Global supply chains involve a wide range of actors, working at multiple sites, with goods and workers crossing numerous borders and jurisdictions. Many supply chain workers are not hired locally, but are rather migrant workers who are vulnerable to a variety of labour abuses and exploitation – including human trafficking for forced labour – owing to inadequate protections, which frequently leave them in a weaker bargaining position than their local counterparts. The elimination of forced labour and modern slavery within these supply chains requires a range of approaches, with responsibilities resting on the shoulders of both governments and businesses. The question is not whether regulation should be left either to governments or corporations, but rather how we can encourage better regulation from both sides, more rigorously enforced, and based upon a common set of principles and guidelines covering operational realities at both the global and local level.

The role of governments in combating forced labour in global supply chains is clear and well-established in international law concerning human rights and labour standards. The United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights further underscore that states are obligated to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of individuals within their jurisdictions, including the duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties such as corporations. States also have an obligation to ensure that workers have access to effective remedies through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means.

However, problems frequently arise when states fail to meet these obligations or when their capacity to enforce regulation is constrained by a lack of resources, a lack of political will, or extraterritoriality, as a result of which the possibilities for action are limited by forms of labour recruitment which span multiple jurisdictions. Nonetheless, there has recently been a global call for increased regulation of labour conditions in countries of work that will protect all workers – including migrant workers and other at-risk groups – from exploitative and dangerous working conditions that violate international human rights and labour standards. Increased reporting requirements, such as those under the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, have increased pressure on businesses to disclose and ultimately improve their efforts to eliminate labour exploitation in supply chains.

Legislation is important, but private regulation is also necessary in order to eliminate modern slavery.

The UN Guiding Principles also prescribe that businesses have an obligation to respect the laws that have been put into place by the state in relation to human rights. In jurisdictions where laws do not adequately protect workers’ rights, the benchmark remains those principles enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights, as well as in the International Labour Organisation’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Furthermore, businesses are obliged to ensure that workers have access to effective operational grievance mechanisms which facilitate remedy in cases where their rights have been violated. These two final points are at the core of why private regulation is also necessary in order to eliminate modern slavery, as it is through their own internal governance of labour-related issues that businesses can help to provide greater protection where states’ measures prove inadequate. A case in point is labour recruitment fees, as few governments prohibit fee-charging to jobseekers. Another example concerns the recurring problem of enforcing existing laws across different jurisdictions. Here, business-led initiatives such as the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, or the supplier codes of conduct introduced by members of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, have in many cases raised the bar above that of relevant national legislation. In particular, these initiatives have acknowledged the negative impacts of debt bondage stemming from the payment of fees, which is especially an issue for many migrant workers. Such private regulation, coupled with a comprehensive auditing regime, has resulted in the significant remuneration of recruitment fees back to workers – over $25 million since 2008 in Apple’s supply chain alone.

Few would question that the primary responsible for safeguarding labour rights and the elimination of modern slavery rests with governments. It is only through robust government regulation and enforcement that the most egregious violations will be uncovered and penalised. This responsibly also extends to bilateral and multilateral agreements to address cross-jurisdictional issues. Only governments can fully address issues of criminality. However, there remains a significant role for private regulation in providing further safeguards that bolster government regulation and, in some jurisdictions, rise above the limited protections of law. Further to this, the application of such regulations throughout companies’ multinational operations can help to increase policy harmonisation across jurisdictions and place additional pressures on governments to raise regulatory standards. The consistent application of international human rights and labour standards across jurisdictions, through both government regulation and private regulation, is a necessary precondition for the elimination of modern slavery.

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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