Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Roundtable: apart from global legislation, how can we protect workers in supply chains?

Unionisation, freedom to collectively bargain, enhanced transparency, and national anti-slavery legislation can all be used to protect supply chain workers, argue our respondents.

26 June 2016

ILO in Asia and the Pacific//

Judy Gearhart

Judy Gearhart is executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a human rights organisation based in Washington DC that advocates for workers rights around the world.


With greater transparency. The lack of transparency in most modern supply chains creates significant risks not only for workers, but also for regulators, businesses, and consumers.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, multinationals are expected to perform active due diligence in their supply chains to ensure that their business model is not perpetuating any human rights abuses. As part of this due diligence process, global buyers should be required to publish and regularly update their supplier lists. Making this disclosure mandatory would incentivise global buyers to trace their supply chains well beyond the largest, directly-contracted ‘tier one’ suppliers where many labour abuses take place.

Compliance data on workers’ rights in production should also be made publicly available both by the government and private sector monitoring initiatives.

Finally, independent, freely-elected trade unions should be fully engaged at all levels of compliance discussions and whistle blower protections must be fully enforced.

Nick Grono

Nick Grono is CEO of the Freedom Fund.


There is existing legislation that can be used to protect workers in international supply chains, though it is far from comprehensive in its reach.

Firstly, the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 has explicit extraterritorial reach as a result of a Reauthorisation Act in 2008. It means that US-based companies can be prosecuted or sued for damages in US courts for severe exploitative practices in their operations in other countries. 

Secondly, in the UK, tort law can be used to sue companies for forced labour if they have a sufficient UK presence and other requirements for tort liability are met, even when the exploitation takes place overseas. In one of the clearest cases of companies being held to account for actions abroad, in 2014 a £55 million settlement was reached between the Shell oil company and residents of a fishing community in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, which had been devastated following two oil spills from a Shell pipeline. The British courts have also ruled that a parent company can be held liable for the failure of a subsidiary company to ensure the health and safety of employees. Thus, on the basis of UK tort law, UK companies could potentially be sued for negligence or unsafe workplaces, if they directly lead to forced labour.

Thirdly, anti-corruption legislation can also be used to tackle things like slavery and human trafficking. The reason for this is that transnational trafficking into forced or bonded labour almost invariably involves bribes being paid to officials somewhere along the route. So when Nepali workers are ‘trafficked’ to work on World Cup construction sites in Qatar, bribes are paid to get the necessary permits and authorisations to leave Nepal and obtain work visas in Qatar. US and UK companies paying bribes in these circumstances could be criminally prosecuted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Bribery Act respectively. And, given that senior management can be held directly responsibly for corrupt conduct by their subordinates, this provides a strong incentive for corporate leaders to stamp out trafficking in their recruitment efforts.

Neha Misra

Neha Misra is a senior specialist at the Solidarity Center, a non-profit international worker rights organisation. Prior to this she worked as a senior attorney with the US Department of Justice. Neha serves on the executive board of the International Labour Recruitment Working Group and on the Global Workers Justice Alliance Board of Advisers.


A hundred years of history shows that the only effective way to protect worker rights and effectively monitor workplaces is for workers to do it themselves. Independent trade unions are able to ensure that workers can raise concerns regarding working conditions or violations of human rights without fear of retaliation by employers. In non-unionised workforces, groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have shown that worker agency can improve conditions and wages where it is most needed. Employers and governments cannot replace the independent voice of workers. Employers and governments should, however, ensure that there is space for workers to exercise their freedom of association.

Social auditing, while popular, is not an effective means of monitoring supply chains. The September 2012 Ali Enterprises garment factory fire in Pakistan is a prime example. Nearly 300 workers died in the fire, despite the fact that the factory was certified.

In the absence of legislation, collective bargaining agreements (which, unlike codes of conduct, are binding legal contracts) and other mechanisms like international framework agreements and jobbers agreements are powerful tools for business accountability. With collective bargaining agreements, workers can:

• define and maintain the needed change in supply chains

• lead independent monitoring of workplaces

• hold multinational corporations accountable

• educate consumers about the structure of supply chains and their role in supporting workers in changing them

Corporations can take responsibility for their global supply chains by:

• demanding that their suppliers function in ways that advance worker rights, pay a living wage, and provide safe working conditions

• including workers in the process of creating standards in the supply chain, supporting worker monitoring, and recognising the workers’ union

• being transparent in efforts to trace their suppliers and disclose their entire supply chain

Consumers have a choice in the products they purchase. Consumers can support changing the structure of supply chains and holding businesses accountable by:

• becoming more educated about how the products they buy are manufactured

• purchasing products that are produced only by companies that respect worker rights and have their suppliers aligned with that practice

Sarah Labowitz


Sarah Labowitz Sarah Labowitz is a research scholar on business and human rights at NYU Stern School of Business.

Certainly unions are part of the answer. Freedom of association and the ability to bargain collectively are essential labour rights that give workers voice and power in the workplace. But we live in a world where some governments ban independent trade unions altogether, like China and Vietnam, while others severely curtail union rights. This is why we need stronger enforcement of standards in supply chains, so that even where freedom of association is not fully respected, workers are protected.


The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData