Confronting root causes of forced labour: promising avenues for change

March 22, 2018

Current government and industry initiatives have proved insufficient for governing labour standards. Joined-up thinking between stakeholders and a global worker movement point to a way forward, writes Genevieve LeBaron and Penelope Kyritsis.

Globalisation’s promise was to pull people out of poverty by integrating them into the world market and offering them decent work. Instead, the ranks of the working poor are expanding daily and labour exploitation – with forced labour at the end of that continuum – is becoming increasingly prevalent across many countries and industries.

Very often, ‘poverty’ and ‘globalisation’ are given as the root causes of forced labour. This may very well be true, but what do these terms really mean? And how exactly do they operate within the global political economy to render people vulnerable to labour exploitation or forced labour? These are questions that we take up in our report, ‘Confronting root causes: forced labour in global supply chains’, our core message being that neither labour exploitation nor forced labour can be addressed in isolation of the dynamics of the contemporary global political economy.

Although a wealth of research suggests that forced labour is more likely to thrive when there are governance gaps that allow employers to perpetrate it with impunity, enforcement of labour standards remains incredibly poor, global governance around the issue is weak, and governments and civil society lack a joined-up thinking approach and are increasingly leaning towards self-regulation. Combined, these have not yet provided a sufficient level of accountability to tackle forced labour in globalised supply chains.

And despite mounting evidence that the enforcement of labour laws and existence of penalties for businesses using exploitative labour practices strongly correlates with a smaller risk in the incidence of forced labour, governments and industry alike still refuse to adopt meaningful solutions for addressing the root causes of forced labour.

However, labour struggles from around the world from the past few decades are shedding light on policies and initiatives that can help address the root causes of forced labour, and could be used as a reference point for government, industry and civil society responses to severe labour exploitation.

For example, it is widely accepted that better enforcement of labour standards can be achieved through the increase in size and mandate of states’ labour inspectorates. But other promising and creative approaches include the creation of penalties for businesses who violate labour standards; targeted enforcement of labour standards in sectors and portions of the supply chain with the highest risks of exploitation; and the protection of collective action and the right to organise.In recent years, there have been many important alternative strategies to protect workers from labour exploitation. For example, in low-wage sectors  in the United States, models of “co-produced enforcement” have led to decreases in wage theft, unsafe working conditions, discrimination and gender-based violence, and have facilitated the refunds of illegal wage deductions to workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organisation based in Florida, has pioneered this type of worker-led labour standards enforcement and underpinned it with a worker-drafted code of conduct agreed to by partner firms. Worker-driven social responsibility initiatives have been demonstrated to protect and improve conditions for vulnerable and low-wage workers.

Workers’ organisations are also putting forward a number of novel bargaining strategies to capture a greater share of the value they help to produce, and to achieve living wages in global supply chains. One example is the Asia Floor Wage Campaign, a regional initiative to establish a living wage for garment workers across Asia by bargaining with big brands at the helm of clothing and apparel supply chains.

Activists have called for a binding global convention on labour standards in supply chains to close existing legal gaps and loopholes. Their demand is supported by strong evidence that direct corporate accountability for working conditions in their global supply chains is effective in combatting exploitation. For instance, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed by major garment companies following the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, has led to improved safety, stronger labour rights and reduced exploitation.

These are only a few avenues for addressing the root causes of forced labour in global supply chains and fighting labour exploitation. Unfortunately, current government and industry initiatives have proved insufficient for governing labour standards, frequently enabling the use of forced labour by overseas suppliers in global supply chains. Governments need to stop relying on voluntary, private sector-led governance approaches to eradicating forced labour in supply chains – including those that seek to increase supply chain transparency alone – and follow the lead of the global worker movement if they want to address the root cause of forced labour in a meaningful way.


Genevieve LeBaron is a Professor in Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of the Yale University Modern Slavery Working Group, and a UK ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow.  Her current research focuses on the business of forced labour in global supply chains. Follow her on twitter @GLeBaron

Penelope Kyritsis is assistant managing editor at Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and a freelance researcher and consultant on global labour issues. Follow her on twitter @_penelopeCK.