Confronting the root causes of forced labour: governance gaps


30 January 2018

Written byGenevieve LeBaron, Neil Howard, Cameron Thibos & Penelope Kyritsis

Although forced labour has long been formally banned, the laws designed to protect workers are spottily enforced and it is rare that government inspectors physically check to see whether or not businesses are selling goods made with forced labour. Indeed, in the United States, one recent study found that “an employer would have to operate for 1,000 years to have even a 1 percent chance of being audited by Department of Labor inspectors”.[i]

Where non-government monitoring systems also exist, they are generally ineffective when it comes to detecting and correcting forced labour. Most social auditing systems focus on first-tier suppliers’ core workforces, and thus neglect the portions of supply chains where vulnerable subcontractors work and the risks of forced labour are highest. Furthermore, such private systems are riddled with conflicts of interest. When abuses are uncovered, they tend to be reported only to retailers who then have discretion over whether or not to act on them.[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii]

In this sense, businesses’ ‘freedom to exploit’ must be understood as running in parallel to workers’ lack of the freedom to say no. Klara Skrivankova of Anti-Slavery International captures this point well when she says that forced labour’s “underlying causes include a regulatory framework in which the use of forced labour makes ‘business sense’ even if illegal, because the risks of discovery and prosecution are low, [in light of] weak enforcement of labour standards”.[ix]

The governance gaps and enforcement issues surrounding labour standards in global supply chains have been studied extensively.[x],[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv] There is also a smaller body of emerging research that specifically considers gaps surrounding forced labour.[xv],[xvi],[xvii],[xviii],[xix] Synthesising across this work, we suggest that there are at least three key governance gaps that have been strategically created around and within supply chains that facilitate the business of forced labour. These are:

  1. the consistent under-enforcement of national and sub-national labour regulations;
  2. weak global governance and national legislative approaches to ensuring labour standards in global supply chains, such as transparency legislation;
  3. a governmental preference for self-regulation and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, which are too often not fit for purpose such as poor quality auditing and social certification programmes.

At the outset of Confronting root causes: forced labour in global supply chains, we noted that globalisation has been characterised by declines in the national enforcement of labour standards.[xx],[xxi],[xxii],[xxiii],[xxiv],[xxv],[xxvi] In chapter 6, we showed how dangerously low levels of labour inspection create a pool of workers who are vulnerable to forced labour. Here, we show how poor enforcement of national and sub-national labour laws also contributes to businesses’ demand for forced labour.

The under-enforcement of labour standards has become a popular strategy for attracting and maintaining investment, or for preventing offshoring, in the era of globalisation. It is part of an ongoing redesign of the labour market and business regulation to maximise profitability.[xxvii] Consequently, illegal business practices like forced labour have become stable and now constitute viable parts of many organisations’ business models.

In addition, weaknesses in private supply chain monitoring systems render them ineffective tools for detecting and addressing forced labour. They are, along with weak enforcement of labour standards and poor global governance frameworks, a key governance gap fueling the business demand for forced labour.

Adequate regulation and enforcement of labour standards within global supply chains would go a long way to eliminating the business demand for forced labour within those chains. And, as the next and final chapter of this report notes, where labour law is effectively enforced, and where businesses face consequences and penalties if they are caught using forced labour, it becomes a lot less viable as a business model.

The key barriers to closing these governance gaps are not technical, but political. As Nicola Phillips and Fabiola Mieres note, they derive from “an unshaken ‘market fundamentalism’ and a reluctance significantly to challenge the private sector and powerful corporations”.[xxviii] It is time for that to change.

For a more in-depth explanation of how governance gaps fuel the demand for forced labour, visit the original version of this article here.

The full Confronting root causes: forced labour in global supply chains report is available online or for PDF download.

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.
Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.
Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Illustration by Carys Boughton(CC BY-NC 4.0)


[i] G. Lafer (2013) ‘The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012’, Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute, 29.
[ii] A. Crane et al. (2017) ‘Governance gaps in eradicating forced labor: from global to domestic supply chains’, Regulation and Governance.
[iv] G. LeBaron et al. (2017) ‘Governing Global Supply Chain Sustainability Through the Ethical Audit Regime’, Globalizations, 14(6), 958-975.
[v] G. LeBaron & J. Quirk (2016) ‘Can Corporations Be Trusted to Tackle Modern Slavery? Introducing the Terms of Debate’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
[vi] G. LeBaron (2016) ‘When it Comes to Forced Labor, Transparency is Mandatory but Disclosure is Discretionary’, Truthout.
[vii] G. LeBaron & N. Phillips. (forthcoming) ‘States and the Political Economy of Unfree Labour’, New Political Economy.
[viii] G. LeBaron (2017) ‘Can the world end forced labour by 2030?’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
[ix] K. Skrivankova (2014) ‘Forced Labour in the United Kingdom’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
[x] G. Gereffi et al. (2005) ‘The governance of global value chains’, Review of International Political Economy, 12, 78-104.
[xi] G. Gereffi (2014) ‘Global value chains in a post-Washington Consensus world’, Review of International Political Economy, 21(1), 9-37.
[xii] L. Fransen & T. Conzelmann (2014) ‘Fragmented or cohesive transnational private regulation of sustainability standards? A comparative study’, Regulation & Governance, 9(3), 259-279.
[xiii] M. Anner (2012) ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and Freedom of Association Rights The Precarious Quest for Legitimacy and Control in Global Supply Chains’, Politics & Society, 40(4), 609-644.
[xiv] Locke et al. (2009) ‘Virtue out of Necessity? Compliance, Commitment, and the Improvement of Labor Conditions in Global Supply Chains’, Politics & Society, 37(3), 319-351.
[xv] G. LeBaron & N. Phillips. (forthcoming) ‘States and the Political Economy of Unfree Labour’.
[xvi] A. Crane et al. (2017) ‘Governance gaps in eradicating forced labor: from global to domestic supply chains’.
[xvii] N. Phillips & F. Mieres (2014) ‘The Governance of Forced Labour in the Global Economy’, Globalizations, 12(2), 244-260.
[xviii] J. Allain et al. (2013) ‘Forced labour’s business models and supply chains’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
[xix] G. LeBaron (2014) ‘Unfree Labor Beyond Binaries: Social Hierarchy, Insecurity, and Labour Market Restructuring’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17(1), 1-19.
[xx] International Labour Organization (2005) ‘The global challenges of labour inspection’, Geneva: ILO.
[xxi] J. Heyes & L. Rychly (eds) (2013) Labour Administration in Uncertain Times Policy, Practice and Institutions, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
[xxii] FLEX (2015) ‘Combatting Labour Exploitation Through Labour Inspection’.
[xxiii] FLEX (2017) ‘Risky Business: Tackling Exploitation In The Uk Labour Market’.
[xxiv] C. Robinson (2017) ‘The UK, ‘modern slavery’, and the elephant in the room: prevention’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
[xxv] C. Robinson (2016) ‘The problem with the British government’s approach to exploitation’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
[xxvi] C. Robinson (2015) ‘Modern slavery and labour exploitation: the UK government’s dilemma’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.
[xxvii] G. LeBaron & N. Phillips. (forthcoming) ‘States and the Political Economy of Unfree Labour’.
[xxviii] N. Phillips & F. Mieres (2014) ‘The Governance of Forced Labour in the Global Economy’, 14.