The possibility that the shirt you are wearing or the smart phone you’re using was made by forced labor is not something most of us like to contemplate, yet it occurs more often than we likely expect.
In a report published by Hult Research and the Ethical Trading Initiative, 70 percent of companies say that slavery-related practices likely exist somewhere in their business operations or supply chains. The International Labor Organization puts the number of modern-day slavery victims at 40 million, the majority being women and girls.
To combat the problem, for more than 20 years, multinational companies from Adidas to Unilever have signed onto strong anti-forced labor statements and conducted risk-based audits and assessments of suppliers, many publishing the results. It seemed progress was being made.
But the London-based Freedom Fund now says that such corporate tactics are not working. They point to evidence from their frontline partners in forced labor hotspots such as India, Nepal and Thailand that suggests that ethical auditing and corporate certification schemes are ineffective tools for addressing and preventing forced labor in global supply chains. Instead, they say in a report published last month that a variety of community-based interventions and mobilization are key.
Working on the front lines to stamp out forced labor
The report -- “Unlocking What Works: How Community-Based Interventions Are Ending Bonded Labor in India” – looks at a five-year, $15 million intervention campaign supported by the Freedom Fund to protect workers in India.
The initiative included 40 nongovernmental organizations that conducted direct interventions to protect workers, including garment workers. Tactics included creating membership in community groups as alternative sources for loans; creation of adolescent girls’ and women’s financial self-help groups; community vigilance committees to bargain collectively with employers; development of internal complaint committees to serve as venues for workers to address grievances; and the availability of courses to inform workers of their rights and recourse under the law.
The report found that the campaign succeeded in reducing the percentage of families in bondage from 56 percent to 11 percent in the fund’s focus areas and that the interventions were effective at stopping labor abuses and changing the structural conditions that enable unfair labor practices.
“Taken together, these evaluations affirm that the power to end modern slavery lies in frontline communities themselves,” said Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund, in a press release announcing the report. “Our programs are having a direct impact in the communities our partners are working in, and they are successfully building on this community-level work to positively change wider policies and systems.”
Apple, Intel and other multinationals doing more to eradicate forced labor
For their part, many multinationals would likely agree with the report’s findings. In fact, many include the tactics cited by the Freedom Fund – such as the availability of grievance mechanisms and training on workers’ rights – in their supplier policies. But a number of companies are going further, beyond audits, to reduce the risk of forced labor within their supply chains.
In 2018, Apple received the Stop Slavery Award by the Thomson Reuters Foundation for its efforts to limit the risk of slavery in its supply chain and operations. The award came after Apple and other companies were criticized for failing to check sufficiently whether the materials used in its products were coming from ethical places.
In accepting the award, Apple said it is expanding its approach to ensure that its anti-slavery policies don't only extend to those suppliers who create Apple's products, but to their suppliers’ suppliers. As reported in The Independent last year, Apple is working with suppliers to ensure they abide by the company's "no passport withholding" policy, for instance, making sure that foreign contract employees are free from abuse even among those workers who don't actually create Apple products. The company has also announced that it will be working with an NGO to hire human trafficking victims to work in its stores.
Intel, which found evidence of forced labor in its supply chain in 2013, prohibits its suppliers from charging workers fees to obtain or keep employment, a common practice that often results in indentured servitude. If the practice is discovered, Intel requires the supplier to repay the recruitment fees in full. Since 2014, Intel says its suppliers have returned more than $14 million in fees to workers.
Adidas, another recipient of the Stop Slavery Award, uses technology to encourage workers in its supply chain to speak out about abuses.
No silver-bullet solution
“Whilst we have outsourced our production and manufacturing all over the world, we will not outsource our moral responsibility which is to do right by the 1.3 million workers who make our products,” said Aditi Wanchoo, senior manager of social and environmental affairs at Adidas, at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference.
While approaches may differ, it is clear that it will take ongoing, coordinated, sector-wide approaches, involving nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and governments, to truly make progress.
Image credit: ILO Asia-Pacific/Flickr