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Modern slavery is the tip of the iceberg

by Joel Quirk and Cameron Thibos | University of the Witwatersrand
Tuesday, 16 October 2018 13:09 GMT

A labourer loads metal scrap onto a truck in an industrial area in Mumbai, India, May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Worker-driven social responsibility aims to give workers a central voice in determining and monitoring their own working conditions

By Joel Quirk and Cameron Thibos

Joel Quirk is a Professor of Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Cameron Thibos is Managing Editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

The world of work is changing. Corporations who used to produce most of their goods in-house have, in recent decades, outsourced most steps in the production process to hundreds or even thousands of different suppliers operating in dozens of different countries. Today, more than 80 percent of goods and services are traded via global supply chains.

“Multinationals outsource their work to other regions where labour is cheaper,” reports Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance. “They evade the responsibility of actual production, yet still benefit from the cheaper cost of production.” Most work within supply chains is offered on a take it or leave it basis, and the terms on offer consistently favour corporations. 

These and other changes to the world of work have left huge numbers of workers and migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. While some of the worst cases of abuse are now classified as forms of modern slavery or human trafficking, these cases are only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Effective intervention requires a focus upon all vulnerable workers, rather than only workers found subject to modern slavery. According to Luis C.deBaca, a former director of the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, interventions which narrowly focus upon the most extreme cases run the risk of exempting “companies from having to create better workplaces by making only the most egregious important”. 

Corporations regularly declare that any problems can be resolved via corporate social responsibility and social auditing programmes. Yet this leads to a “never ending game of cat and mouse”, according to Han Dongfang from the China Labour Bulletin. Corporations “are busy sending out auditors to the suppliers, auditors are busy travelling between different worlds and writing reports, employers are busy telling their workers what to say and what not to say to the auditors, and civil society organisations and media are busy finding the faults in the audits”. 

Worker voices are frequently missing from this picture, as is the role of worker organisations as bargaining partners and protectors against abuses. “Things will only improve when workers' organisations are at the table to discuss, implement, and monitor the solutions”, Bhattacharjee says. Unfortunately, she concludes, “This rarely happens because most corporate activities tend to avoid dealing with workers' organisations”.

One emerging alternative to corporate self-regulation is worker-driven social responsibility (WSR), which aims to give workers a central voice in determining and monitoring their own working conditions. It does this by shifting “power, resources, and control from the entities at the top to the workers at the bottom in ways that legally obligate companies to prioritise the needs and rights of workers”, as described by Theresa Haas of the WSR-Network.

WSR-style programmes can now be found in Florida's tomato fields, Vermont's dairy farms, and Bangladesh's garment factories. They have quickly emerged one of the hottest new ideas in labour organising because, unlike corporate self-regulation, WSR remains outside company control. “It doesn't depend on the largesse of the company”, observes C.deBaca. “Corporations can no longer claim to be committed to a tripartite, high-low style dialogue with the unions while simultaneously using lobbying and business associations to ensure unions stay powerless. My hope and dream for WSR is that it changes that dynamic”. 

WSR programmes are not limited to individual cases of exceptional violence – the kind targeted by modern slavery interventions – but also provide a platform for addressing many forms of widespread, everyday abuse, such as wage theft, where employers deny workers the legal wages and benefits owed to them. Ensuring that vulnerable workers have a voice and can organise against abuses has many benefits. 

The reverse also applies. Whenever vulnerable workers do not have effective protections, then all kinds of abuses are likely to follow. As C.deBaca observes: “If you're not dealing with wage theft, if you're not dealing with hours worked, if you're not dealing with the ability to act through unions, then don't be surprised when the most horrendous violations of enslavement and abuse end up happening”. 

This article draws upon material from a recently published round table on the future of work, which was produced by openDemocracy in collaboration with the Ford Foundation. All quotes are taken from contributions to the round table.