OPINION: Lose the rhetoric and look to the law to end modern slavery

Wednesday, 21 October 2020 08:58 GMT

The United Nations building is pictured in New York, New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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Governments prefer voluntary initiatives to legally binding systems that could help tackle trafficking and slavery

Aidan McQuade is an expert on modern slavery and forced labour, and the former head of Anti-Slavery International

In the week of the UK’s Anti-Slavery Day, and the EU’s Anti-Trafficking Day, (both 18th Oct) it is nice to see the range of virtual conferences and webinars on the subjects of slavery taking place to mark this. It is particularly encouraging to see the range of private sector initiatives recognising that tackling forced and child labour in supply chains is a business imperative for the coming decades. 

Partly this is in response to increasing awareness of the risks. Partly it is in response to the increasing number of extra-territorial laws, such as the French Duty of Vigilance law, or the US Trade Enforcement and Facilitation Act, which require international businesses to take steps to eliminate forced and child labour. 

But welcome as these laws are, it is important that they do not obscure the fact that elimination of “modern” slavery from international supply chains is not solely the responsibility of international business. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are explicit on this point: businesses have the responsibility to respect the human rights of workers; governments have the responsibility to protect them. By implication it will be close to impossible to obtain the elimination of labour rights abuses, such as forced and child labour, if both governments and businesses are not fulfilling these responsibilities. 

These complementary responsibilities were recognised in law by the International Labour Organization with the 2014 Protocol to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention. That original Convention had been a response to the systems of forced labour prevalent in the colonial era. Forced labour has evolved since then. So, the 2014 Protocol was a considered effort to ensure that international law was fit for purpose in a new century. 

In fact, it is the continuing evolution of trafficking practices that has been the principle reason of the endurance of slavery as a global problem. Frequently no sooner has one response been prepared than traffickers change their exploitation models to allow them to carry on abusing vulnerable workers with impunity. 

Recognising this reality of the ever-evolving nature of slavery, the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol has sought to institutionalise an adaptive response. It specifically requires countries that ratify the Protocol to establish a “social dialogue” between government, business’ and workers’ organisations to develop action plans to combat forced and child labour, and to cooperate internationally towards this end. 

Given all the rhetoric current about the horrors of contemporary slavery one would think that the provisions of the Forced Labour Protocol would be uncontroversial. However, at time of writing only 45 countries have ratified the Protocol.

There are of course other international initiatives through which states and other stakeholders can express their commitments to the eradication of forced labour and trafficking. Alliance 8.7, for example, is “an inclusive global partnership committed to achieving Target 8.7 – the target to eradicate slavery, forced and child labour, of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

This initiative has 22 “Pathfinder” countries – that is countries that “demonstrate commitment to implement meaningful efforts… to accelerate progress in tackling” slavery, forced and child labour. Only five of these have, to date, ratified the Forced Labour Protocol.

In other words, governments seem to have a preference for “voluntary” initiatives under which the guilty can continue to thrive, rather than legally binding systems that establish robust processes that may have some prospect of eliminating the underlying causes of trafficking, forced and child labour.

So, while governments may be glib about the need to ratify the Forced Labour Protocol, businesses do not have that luxury. If they continue to source from countries which have not ratified the Protocol they will be sourcing from countries which, contrary to the UN Guiding Principles are simply not robustly acting to protect the human rights of workers. Even with the best intentions and the best systems, no business will be able to fully protect its supply chain from the risks of forced and child labour that such a failure of government poses.

Hence businesses in these circumstances will be operating under increased commercial hazard, opening themselves to the sanction of the growing body of extra-territorial law that is threatening to preclude from lucrative markets businesses whose products are tainted with forced or child labour.

Businesses need to recognise this, and join with other ethically minded businesses, trades unions and civil society to demand the urgent ratification and implementation of the Forced Labour Protocol across the world. Without this, any discussion on slavery eradication this week, virtual or otherwise, will be just so much more hot air.