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The global struggle to end modern slavery | The World Weekly

Millions of people will tune in to watch the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a month during which fans across the world will cheer on their favourite teams and new stars will be made. However, there is a darker side to the tournament.

The Norwegian newspaper Josimar recently revealed that two Russian companies used North Korean slave workers to build a stadium in St. Petersburg, whose construction has been under way for the past 11 years. The vast majority of the North Korean workers’ salaries is reportedly taken from them, serving as a crucial supply of hard currency for Pyongyang according to rights organisations.

The nexus between sports and workers’ rights, however, is not new. FIFA, football’s global governing body, has come under fire in recent years after it chose Qatar to host the 2022 tournament, following reports that thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asia were stranded without pay and stripped of their passports.

Although estimates of victims vary, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reports that around 1,000 migrant workers are dying on Qatari construction sites every year. By the time the tournament kicks off in 2022, around 7,000 people could have died in the process of building football stadiums and facilities.

Forced labour is a worldwide phenomenon. From cocoa pickers in Cote d'Ivoire to Asian garment workers in Bangladesh, forced labour pervades companies’ international supply chains, NGOs and rights organisations report. According to figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), forced labour in the private sector worldwide generates $150 billion in illegal profits every year.

Estimates suggest that there are over 40 million people in servitude worldwide.

Earlier this month, rights organisations uncovered fresh evidence of sexual abuse in the supply chain of household fashion brands such as H&M and Gap. While emerging economies or countries with weak governance systems have been particularly vulnerable to slave labour, EU countries have not been immune. According to media reports, migrants from Africa and Asia face risks of forced labour on Irish fishing boats.

There is no single legal definition of modern slavery. According The Walk Free Foundation, an NGO, “modern slavery refers to situations where one person has taken away another person’s freedom – their freedom to control their body, their freedom to choose to refuse certain work or to stop working – so that they can be exploited. Freedom is taken away by threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power and deception.” It can include “crimes of human trafficking, slavery and slavery like practices such as servitude, forced labour, forced or servile marriage, the sale and exploitation of children, and debt bondage”.

With growing pressure for companies to cut costs, charities believe that forced labour has become a staple of the global economy, putting certain categories of workers such as women and some ethnic groups more at risk. “Expansive production networks coupled with restrictive migration regimes means the world is becoming a global labour market and workers with structural vulnerabilities are more at risk,” Jennifer Rosenbaum, US director at Global Labour Justice, told The World Weekly.

From consumer pressure to tougher laws

While forced labour continues to pervade global supply chains, there is evidence that companies and brands worldwide have started taking measures to address the phenomenon. Amidst heightened scrutiny, evidence of forced labour can affect a company's brand and result in a public relations crisis.

Brands such as food producer Nestlé have had to confess that they have uncovered forced labour practices in companies involved in their supply chain, while Apple identified instances of "bonded servitude" in its Chinese factories. Once a niche area, forced labour has moved into the realm of corporate governance as companies seek to avert damage to their brands.

A lot has changed for companies. Since 2015, several countries have passed anti-slavery legislation, paving the way for tougher regulatory regimes. In May this year, Australia's Labour government revealed details of a new transparency reporting regime. Under the proposed new law, companies with a turnover of more than $100 million will be asked to file an annual modern slavery report.

The UK's Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 was the first law in the world that required companies to report on their supply chains and disclose the steps they are taking to eliminate slave labour. Other countries have followed suit. Last year, France passed measures to limit human rights abuses in supply chains, while the Dutch Parliament adopted a "due diligence" law on child labour.

People wearing black shirts and bearing red tape on their mouths walk during the third annual edition of the 'Walk for Freedom' against modern slavery, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on October 15, 2016.

Elsewhere, pressure on governments from consumers and investors is growing. On May 6, a group of 130 Canadian investors called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to enact legislation against forced labour. Last year Canada, along with 36 other nations, made a formal commitment to implement such legislation.

Businesses are also facing increased consumer and shareholder pressure to eradicate slavery from their operations. International brands such as Coca-Cola, Hilton Hotels and Delta Airlines have adopted individual measures to tackle modern slavery, while others are joining collective initiatives such as the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Corporate social responsibility programmes and external audits have become commonplace. Some companies have gone further and implemented specific anti-slavery measures. The Bright Future programme by British retailer Co-op, which offers job opportunities to former victims of modern slavery, is an example of such an initiative.

Have companies reached their goals?

The flurry of anti-slavery legislation in the past three years and growing awareness from companies has not eradicated the problem. These measures, many charities believe, are shortcuts adopted by companies to improve their brand image and fail to address the root causes of forced labour. In the UK, a recent review of 230 company transparency statements under the Modern Slavery Act revealed that "35% of statements say nothing on the question of their risk assessment processes”.

In January, the UK's independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland wrote a letter to 25 FTSE 100 companies deemed to have failed in their effort to address modern slavery. In the absence of sanctions under the UK Modern Slavery Act, however, ensuring companies’ compliance with anti-slavery legislation is proving difficult.

Internal audits conducted by companies have also come under fire. Speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, rights activist Andy Hall reported that "audits – which are often too quick and just focused on paperwork – need to go beyond factories and look at recruitment practices and housing." Experts are now recommending that companies look at the full scope of their operations – recruitment to human resources and quality control processes.

This requires a collaborative approach with trade unions and other organisations involved in safeguarding workers’ rights, according to experts TWW spoke to. “Brands alone cannot eliminate exploitation from the workplace,” says Annanya Battacharjee, international coordinator at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance - a global coalition of trade unions and human rights organisations campaigning for garment workers across Asia. “They must work with trade unions at the global and supplier level. Corporate Social Responsibility programmes and brand-led audits of their own supply chains will always be limited in their effectiveness.”

Human rights organisations and trade unions are now taking their campaign to the next level. After governments, they are calling on international institutions to uphold their commitments to eradicating slavery and forced labour. On June 12, the ITUC, Clean Clothes Campaign and HEC-NYU EU Public Interest Clinic filed a formal complaint to the European Ombudsman claiming that the European Commission’s trade policies with Bangladesh fail to comply with its commitment to workers’ rights. 

Despite heightened scrutiny, the fight against modern slavery is not over.

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