A look on forced labor
Plerig Vienzin, Wethica, Jan 2017
This winter has seen several media reporting on slaves used by boats of fisheries in South Asia. Fortunately, such cases are not frequently found in more industrial supply chains. Unfortunately, we meet nonetheless forced labor situations in many different locations.
IlO has indeed set one more step to fight the forced labor issues by issuing a protocol (P29) which will start to be implemented by the end of the year. It reminds some principles of the convention C29 and highlights some potential means to fight forced labor in today’s context (the convention C29 dates of 1930).
But back to the CSR. Our own experience of finding forced labor situations during audits shows factories are actually often unaware their practices are related to forced labor. Indeed the protocol P29 says the same in article number 2 which insists on prevention including the training of vulnerable persons and of the employers. Recent examples in Taiwan showed the factories didn’t understand debt workers were considered forced labor. They considered they were free as these workers have made the choice for themselves. They were here not considering that by doing this choice workers were actually losing the possibility of choice for the three years of the contract. With debts, the workers are not able to resign anymore if their situation change. The SA8000 is quite clear on that, saying, “2.3—The organization shall ensure that no employment fees or costs are borne in whole or in part by workers.”
Other examples in Dubai have shown the same lack of understanding. Most factories hold the passport because it is a usual practices, even without really knowing the source of the reason. A migrant employee needs a “sponsor” to get the visa. The sponsor has actually a responsibility related to the local immigration services. So keeping the passport was primarily a means to meet the immigration department requirements. But it has another consequence. The link between the employee and its “sponsor” is very strong and leads to difficult situation if the worker wants to change employers, making it almost impossible if he doesn’t have his passport. Qatar has been notified for this very reason in this year’s report of the ILO commission (page 209).
So, some factories are actually putting their employees in a situation related to forced labor, without even being aware of such situations because they are thinking only of their usual practice and not the consequence on a longer-term or how the practice could be used. They are obviously very upset when we point such issues out and usually tried to explain it is not their purpose. Although proper behavior is important in such matters, we also have to prevent the means of potential forced labor. So acting promptly on such cases of not understood forced labor cases is necessary not only in terms of risk management, but also, as ILO pointed it out, in the long process of fighting every form of forced labor.
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