Knowledge is Key to Accountability for Contemporary Forms of Slavery

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09 December 2015

Written by Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery

Workers around the world are exploited in the production of the goods we use, the clothes we wear, the buildings we inhabit, and the foods we eat. As corporate supply chains become increasingly long and complex, and under ever-mounting pressure to reduce costs, millions of workers fall victim to a range of labour rights abuses. In some cases these abuses lead to or themselves amount to the crimes of forced labour, human trafficking or slavery. Yet their exploiters and the businesses who profit are almost never held legally responsible for the suffering they inflict. More needs to be done to build accountability in corporate supply chains, but with such a huge problem it can be hard to know where to start.

There is already a large amount of legislation that can be used to help exploited workers and to hold businesses responsible for labour abuses. Most countries have in place labour laws on minimum wages and conditions of work; laws against child labour; criminal laws against fraud and physical violence; laws against human trafficking and forced labour; laws regulating recruitment agents; and laws on money laundering and proceeds of crime. In some countries (for example, Thailand, the Philippines, and Bangladesh) the anti-trafficking law specifically provides for the punishment of companies involved in trafficking for labour exploitation.

These laws exist but they are rarely used, particularly in the context of business supply chains. This results in a culture of impunity that allows contemporary forms of slavery to thrive. The failure to enforce existing laws demonstrates a lack of accountability on the part of governments themselves, in meeting their international obligations to protect workers from severe human rights abuses.

Recent cases, however, demonstrate how existing laws can be used by workers and their lawyers to hold businesses accountable for exploitation throughout supply chains. In the United States, the case of David v. Signal International, LLC used a number of laws – including the federal anti-trafficking law, anti-racketeering law, labour laws, anti-discrimination law, and common contract law – to achieve an award of USD$14 million in damages for exploited workers. These workers, along with hundreds of others, had been fraudulently recruited from India and exploited in the U.S. by a New Orleans marine construction company repairing damaged oil-rigs following Hurricane Katrina. The company, an immigration lawyer, and an Indian labour recruiter were all held liable. More cases like these are needed to provide justice to victims and to build awareness on exploitation in business supply chains.

Improving accountability does require stronger laws but crucially requires existing laws to be understood and used. Businesses need to know the legal frameworks within which they are operating in every country of operation. They need to exercise vigilance over their operations to ensure that suppliers are not evading the law. Workers need to know their rights and how to enforce them. And advocates need to know the tools available to them and where the gaps exist. Knowledge is the starting point for accountability for contemporary forms of slavery. Knowledge, followed by concrete actions, will turn the tide against exploitation and abuse, resulting in governments and businesses being called to account for human rights abuses.