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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

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Forced labour in the global economy


OPEN DEMOCRACY | Free Thinking for the World and the Globe




There is a growing and sober awareness among international organisations and some advocacy groups that trafficking, slavery and forced labour are not anomalies perpetuated by a few ‘bad apple’ employers. Rather, severe labour exploitation is an endemic feature of the contemporary global economy. From slavery and trafficking in the production of shrimp in Thailand to artisanal cheese and clothing made by US prison labour, forced labour plays a significant role in commodity production, as well as care, domestic, and sex work. The need to address forced labour more systematically has been emphasised recently in the rise of calls to tackle ‘root causes’. Yet what actually are these root causes? How do they operate? Beyond the commonplace notion that ‘poverty’ renders workers vulnerable to abuse, or that this abuse constitutes ‘the underside of globalisation’, what do we actually know about the specific ways in which the structure of the global economy conditions both poverty and severe labour exploitation? Read on...


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The recent flurry of government, corporate, and NGO initiatives to eradicate slavery does little to tackle underlying causes. Until this changes, severe exploitation will thrive in the global economy.

 Basic income and the anti-slavery movement

Unconditional basic income is not only feasible, but it also has more emancipatory potential than any other single policy because it targets economic vulnerability, the heart of all labour exploitation.

 What would loosen the roots of labour exploitation in supply chains?

Forced labour is a symptom of a wider malaise facing workers in global supply chains. Governance gaps and skewed business structures are exacerbating inequality and must be tackled for workers to be properly protected.

 The politics of numbers: the Global Slavery Index and the marketplace of activism

The Global Slavery Index is profoundly flawed methodologically, yet it remains widely and often uncritically cited. What underlies the production and use of highly suspect statistics? 

 ILO campaigns: missing the wood for the trees?

The ILO’s struggle against forced labour doesn’t go far enough. By abstracting ‘forced labour’ from capitalism, it de-politicises all labour exploitation. This is the opposite of what is needed.

 Modern slavery and the responsibilities of individual consumers

How can one be an ethical consumer in a globalised world? There are ways to mitigate our involvement in harmful global supply chains. Continuing with business as usual is unacceptable. 

 Addressing forced labour in fragmented chains of production

What are the prospects for protecting workers in global supply chains? From UN principles to business and worker efforts, the range of initiatives is impressive – but many remain seriously flawed.

 Global supply chains: the role of law? A role for law!

International law lacks stringent mechanisms for ensuring worker protection in global supply chains. It is the responsibility of the wealthy nations which are home to major corporations to fill this legal gap.

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 Despite claims of progress, labor and environmental violations continue to plague Apple

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 Food retailers, market concentration and forced labour

Market concentration is driving forced labour in the food industry, as retailers’ unprecedented power allows them to command low prices, quick turnaround and high quality from farmers and suppliers.

 Still slaving over sugar

Despite the many 19th century acts declaring the emancipation of the enslaved, there are still practices in sugar production that need to be abolished. Is mechanisation the answer?

 Capitalism’s unfree global workforce

Neoliberal migration and border regimes instantiate a de facto forced labour regime.  Migration is increasingly key to providing capital’s precarious workforce, but unfree labour has long been central to global capitalism. 

 Forced labour under a changing climate: droughts and debt in semi-arid India

Climatic change compounds the vulnerabilities and dependencies existing between households in semi-arid South Asia. To avoid more coerced labour, public policy must address the root causes of such vulnerability. 

 The role of labour market intermediaries in driving forced and unfree labour

There has been lots of talk about multinational corporations’ responsibility for fuelling forced labour.  But what about the labour market intermediaries who recruit and supply vulnerable workers to these firms?

 What has forced labour to do with poverty?

Income-based measures of poverty are unreliable for determining who is most vulnerable to forced labour. More nuanced understandings of vulnerability are required to effectively reduce forced labour in the global economy.

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