* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Mauritius and Bangladesh are negotiating an agreement that could put an end to bonded labour once and for all
Mauritius may have a reputation as a tropical paradise, but for thousands of migrants working in its factories, it represents a limbo of debt and bonded labour. Many arrive from Bangladesh, attracted by the promise of a decent job so that they can send money home to their families. But the reality is that they end up trapped for months, even years, working to repay the huge fees charged by unscrupulous recruitment agents just to secure their job abroad.
Yet this could be about to change. The Mauritian and Bangladeshi governments are negotiating an agreement that should help to put an end to this kind of practice once and for all.
The breakthrough was announced at an event in Mauritius hosted by the British High Commission and Asos – a major fashion brand and member of the Ethical Trading Initiative. For the first time, the event brought together ministers and officials from Mauritius and Bangladesh, along with international brands, retailers, suppliers, and a host of other stakeholders to discuss the issues and how best to tackle them.
The apparel and textile industry is big business for Mauritius, but it is heavily reliant on migrant workers, the majority coming from Bangladesh, with others from Madagascar, India and Sri Lanka. While the government has made an express commitment to decent work, this reliance on migrant labour without due oversight of the recruitment process has made it a high-risk country for modern slavery.
The problem isn’t new, and it’s by no means unique. Migrant workers from Asia can pay anything between $600 - $20,000 for their jobs depending on the country, sector and type of job. Some employers hold their documents or withhold payment until the end of the contract, leaving workers vulnerable and dependent on one employer for years.
Yet the Mauritian government and manufacturers are keen for the country to remain an attractive sourcing destination for brands and retailers. It is a stable country that upholds the rule of law, but they must take important steps to ensure their industries do not put vulnerable workers at risk.
With the right leadership, getting it right in Mauritius could provide a model for similar change elsewhere.
The agenda already has the support of a wide range of stakeholders, including the UK government, Anti-Slavery International, the IHRB, the ILO and the IOM. But it is being led by a core group of businesses who are taking their responsibilities to tackle and prevent modern slavery seriously.
Asos in particular has shown genuine leadership. Prior to the meeting, a letter from Asos and ETI signed by 10 international brands was sent to the Mauritian Government calling for action to monitor and regulate the recruitment industry. The brand also used its own significant leverage in the country to bring together important stakeholders – including many of its commercial competitors – and lay the groundwork for a common understanding of the problem.
At the same time, ETI members Asos, Whistles, and Princes, along with other brands, suppliers and retailers have been working together over the past few months to investigate the human rights risks and impacts of their commercial operations in Mauritius.
While it’s early days, these efforts are starting to bear fruit. A number of suppliers in Mauritius have already changed their recruitment policies and practices, while the Mauritian Export Association has agreed to adopt the ‘employer pays’ principle and ensure its members comply with it. In some cases, debts owed by migrant workers have been repaid to free them from bonded labour.
Unions too have an important role to play, but organising migrant workers takes considerable resources and different ways of working. They will need organisers who can speak the language of migrant workers, who can build trust and help them deal with the issues that are most important to them. They will also need a shift in approach to successfully win the trust of both suppliers and workers.
At the same time, suppliers and manufacturers in Mauritius will need to open their doors and allow trade unions in. Brands need to send a message to their suppliers that this is important, and government needs to monitor that this is happening.
Some of this work is already underway. For example, Mauritian trade unions are starting to build alliances with Bangladeshi unions so that workers can better understand their rights before they leave, and when they arrive.
Ultimately, the real measure of success will be whether these efforts effectively eliminate debt bonded labour. So far, however, the process has been an excellent example of what a coordinated, multi-lateral approach can achieve.
We’ve been particularly impressed by the work of the brands. Businesses have a legal and moral duty to address modern slavery in their supply chains – quite simply, it is the right thing to do – but if they take their responsibilities seriously, this is exactly the sort of approach we should be seeing: bold, proactive and committed to the long-term.
We’ll be following future developments closely.
Cindy Berman is the head of Modern Slavery Strategy at the Ethical Trading Initiative