Forced labour laws need more than lip service to be effective
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Forced labour laws need more than lip service to be effective | The Guardian News
In 1930, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established a Forced Labour Convention, an attempt to address such practices in what was then still a colonial world. Over the decades the manifestations of forced labour have changed, whereas international law has remains rooted in the past.
Beginning this week, and running until 12 June, the International Labour Conference (ILC) is meeting to try to address the gaps in the convention that have emerged over the past 80 years.
The conference represents an opportunity to advance the eradication of forced labour, updating legislation in the areas of prevention, victim protection and compensation, and including new forms of forced labour such as trafficking.
These negotiations are a crucial test for the UK, which has stated that it wants to be a leader in the struggle against slavery. Many, including Anti-Slavery International, will view its stand as an acid test, particularly whether it supports a binding protocol to strengthen international law and begin the process of improving global standards of protection, or only a non-binding recommendation that would be in keeping with a naive view that voluntarist approaches might somehow make headway against the entrenched systems of slavery, in spite of the evidence of history.
The ILO estimates that 21 million people are experiencing forced labour, or have been trafficked. The global profits from these activities are estimated to be $150bn per year.
That is a dreadful indictment of how we conduct our business. Most people who have the power to shape slavery laws are against slavery in principle, but few are against slavery in practice. In the globalising political economy, many politicians baulk at the idea of regulating business, and seem to confine their responsibilities to asking firms how they wish to be regulated, allowing business and trade to become less legally and democratically accountable.
An increasing number of businesses and governments base their competitive advantage on the use of forced labour in their supply chains. Investigations by Anti-Slavery International in India have shown how the forced labour of girls and young women is now a central and systematic feature of garment production for western markets.
The failure of international law is compounded by a failure at national level. Similar situations can be found in other countries and industries, such as cocoa production in west Africa or the seafood industry in Thailand.
In Gulf states, the kafala system, which binds a worker to an employer, in effect allows vulnerable migrant workers to be abused by their bosses. As Guardian investigations have shown, the 2022 World Cup is being prepared using the forced labour of thousands of migrants in Qatar.
There is a hypocrisy at the core of our attitudes to migration: on one hand, governments will decry contemporary slavery and praise those migrant workers whose remittances are often more important contributions to their countries' development than international aid. On the other hand, those same governments will refuse to back international law that has some prospect of improving migrant working practices, for fear of upsetting some of the electorate.
Story Type: News