The Continuing Impact of Coronavirus on Human Rights and Modern Slavery

The continuing coronavirus pandemic poses risks to members of society beyond the immediate virus itself. Since governments around the world began introducing new legislation and lockdown procedures to enforce social distancing measures many organisations have highlighted the need to maintain protections for basic human rights, and ensure appropriate safeguards are in place for the some of the most vulnerable in society, such as victims of human trafficking and modern slavery; victims of domestic violence; children at risk of exploitation; and serving prisoners for whom an inability to socially distance may have severe consequences.

Domestically, NGOs and academics have warned many victims of modern slavery and forced labour trapped in exploitative situations will be unable to seek medical assistance or stop working, and many may further actively avoid seeking help for fear of contact with the authorities. Whilst some positive measures have been put in place to aid those impacted by coronavirus and lockdown measures domestically, such as the UK Government’s measures allowing victims of modern slavery to remain in government funded safe-house accommodation for three months, significant concerns continue to be raised for workers in international supply chains. Reductions in international trade have caused thousands of workers to have been left jobless, or facing joblessness, leaving them potentially vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery. In Cambodia, over 20,000 workers in the garment industry alone faced job losses due to factory closures resulting from a reduction in trade with China, the US and Europe. Similar reports have emerged from other countries, impacting workers across all industries. However, the risks extend beyond becoming trapped in exploitative employment. Loss of income has led some workers and families having to resort to seeking high interest loans in order to survive, leading to many becoming victims of debt bondage; being forced to work to pay off the debt. This has become a particular concern for millions of informal workers in countries such as India, where many workers do not have bank accounts or official paperwork causing difficulties in accessing Government aid.

In addition to concerns for workers across the world becoming extremely vulnerable to modern slavery, forced labour, and other forms of exploitation as a result of losing their job and income, there are substantial concerns for those working in supply chains for high demand items. In particular, manufacturers of personal protective equipment used in medical services, such as rubber gloves, have come under scrutiny for their labour practices; with the conditions of migrant workers in rubber glove factories in Malaysia being described as ‘slave like’. With demand for these items continually rising, human rights organisations have implored governments not to ignore labour conditions and exploitation occurring across global supply chains in their production.

These impacts of the global pandemic may have profound effects beyond the individuals forced into exploitative situations, causing substantial delays in the progress of programmes to improve human rights globally. The UNFPA has conducted an analysis that suggests the economic impact of coronavirus, in conjunction with delays to programmes tackling issues such as FGM and child marriage, could lead to an estimated 13 million child marriages in the next decade, and an additional 2 million cases of FGM above what was previously predicted.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the risks and vulnerability for many in society and will continue to do so for many years after the initial pandemic itself has ended. In addition to those trapped in violent, abusive, and exploitative situations at home, for many around the world the economic impacts of coronavirus have raised their vulnerability to potentially becoming trapped in bonded labour, forced labour or other forms of modern slavery. The raised demand for certain products, alongside an increased demand for work, has also exposed may factory workers potentially exploitative working conditions, and the impact on global programmes focusing on human rights have been delayed; potentially resulting in millions of additional cases in the coming years. It is vital to ensure that in tackling the global public health crisis much of the positive development in addressing human rights around the world is not undone, and Governments and private sector actors continue to address and improve the situations of society’s most vulnerable individuals.

Doorstep Scams, Rogue Traders, Travelling Sales and Modern Slavery

Human Trafficking and Doorstep Scams

Door to door scams and rogue traders have been points of focus recently for their links with modern slavery and human trafficking. However, the links between door to door scams and modern slavery and human trafficking are not new issues. In July 2015 the Polaris Project published a report entitled ‘knocking at your door: Labor Trafficking on Sales Crews‘, exploring the major issues of modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour in the travelling sales industry. The Polaris Project’s report focused specifically on the US context, but awareness of door to door scams and rogue trader’s links with modern slavery and human trafficking has risen in the United Kingdom too.

 

What are Door to Door Scams and Rogue Traders?

The Neighbour Hood Watch provide a general overview of doorstep scams, including who is likely to be targeted by doorstep scammers and what sort of scams might be involved. They identify typical doorstep scams involving ‘home improvements’, where an individual will knock on the door of their victim, without warning, and explain that their home is in need of improvement works, such as gardening, re-wiring, re-roofing etc, and that this work is extremely urgent. However, more recent incarnations of these traditional scams include installing solar panels, exploitation of internet connections, and the creation of false technical service provider adverts on search engines. Aside from these typical doorstep scams, the Neighbourhood Watch also links apparent doorstep sales pitches with distraction burglary and identity theft.

 

Links to Modern Slavery

Door to door scams of the kind noted above are being increasingly identified as being undertaken by victims of modern slavery. Criminal gangs will target vulnerable individuals who are held by the gang and forced to work for little or no pay, with one reported instance stating that a victim had been forced to work long hours 7 days a week for food and tobacco.  These patterns broadly mirror the findings of the Polaris Project’s 2015 report, which found vulnerable young people in need of employment would be offered the chance to work for a travelling sales company. Once in the ’employ’ of the company the victim would be moved around the country, often under threat of violence and/or abandonment, and forced to work for no wages.

Debt bondage can be a common feature of modern slavery and human trafficking involving doorstep sales, scams and rogue traders. Vulnerable victims are initially offered shelter, food, support, and transport, which gets tallied against them as a debt. Continued reliance on the traffickers for these provisions adds to the debt, as well as failures to meet randomly assigned sales quotas.

The noted increase in victims of modern slavery being used to carry out door to door sales and scams has led to authorities calling for greater vigilance from consumers, both to be careful of new incarnations of old scams, but also of who is the individual apparently carrying them out.

Public Sector Supply Chains and Government Compliance

Public Sector Supply Chains and Government Compliance
image from Shutterstock

The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act published the final report at the end of May 2019. The final report proposed a consultation to run that focused on issues surrounding transparency in supply chains and modern slavery reporting. On the 9th July 2019 this consultation was launched, forming part of a governmental commitment to improving section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which addresses modern slavery reporting requirements and transparency in supply chains. The consultation took responses from NGOs, charities, businesses, public sector bodies, and various other organisations and interested parties, addressing three key areas:

 

  1. The content of modern slavery statements: This section addressed inconsistencies in reporting approaches taken by different companies and the possibility of making certain criteria mandatory. This section also sought to address the fact that global movements in modern slavery legislation may make it desirable to ‘harmonise our approach’. The questions posed focused on reporting practices and the implications of making certain areas mandatory.

 

  1. Transparency, Compliance, and enforcement: The second section of the consultation sought to propose the introduction of a central government registry, one designed to improve transparency. It also addressed reporting deadlines, proposing a single annual reporting deadline so as to reduce the confusion of multiple separate deadlines throughout the year. It finally sought to gain views into how section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act might be enforced. Questions were posed on each of these areas.

 

  1. Public sector supply chains: The final area addressed in the consultation examined public sector supply chains. In essence, the consultation proposed that reporting requirements would be extended to public sector organisations with a turnover of more than £36 million per year.  Reporting requirements would be for each individual government body to maintain responsibility, whether given individually or as part of a group statement. The questions posed by this section of the consultation focused on the apparent benefits and challenges of imposing modern slavery reporting requirements on large public sector bodies.

 

The consultation period ended on the 17th September 2019 and the following day the UK Government announced a series of measures that would be introduced to ensure that governmental supply chains were free from Modern Slavery. The UK government spends approximately £52 billion in the procurement of goods and services, with wider public sector annual spending nearing £203 billion. The statement further announced a new partnership with the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply to provide training and awareness to government workers and departments. The announcements addressed several of the issues raised in the consultation surrounding public sector supply chains, with proposals that from 2021 individual ministerial departments will produce their own modern slavery statements. However, the final response to the period of consultation has yet to be released.

Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 Released

Independent Review Modern Slavery Act 2015

The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 has was published this week on the 22nd May 2019. The review has identified eighty recommendations for improvements to the operation of the act and wider policies to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking in the United Kingdom. The review makes significant recommendations for how legislation should be amended to increase compliance by businesses and improve supply chain transparency, including:

  • Recommendation 25: Failure to fulfil modern slavery statement reporting requirements or to act when instances of slavery are found should be an offence under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.
  • Recommendation 22: The legislation should be amended to require companies to consider the entirety of their supply chains [in respect of modern slavery]. If a company has not done so, it should be required to explain why it has not and what steps it is going to take in the future.
  • Recommendation 18: In section 54(5) ‘may’ should be changed to ‘must’ or ‘shall’, with the effect that the six areas set out as areas that an organisation’s statement may cover will become mandatory. If a company determines that one of the headings is not applicable to their business, it should be required to explain why.
  • Recommendation 32: Section 54 should be extended to the public sector. Government departments should publish a [modern slavery] statement at the end of the financial year, approved by the Department’s board and signed by the Permanent Secretary as Accounting Officer. Local government, agencies and other public authorities should publish a statement if their annual budget exceeds £36 million.

The recommendations would significantly increase the responsibility on businesses to address anti-slavery in their supply chains, and afford the government greater power to punish companies that do not comply.

The full report can be found here.

Forced Labour in Technology Companies’ Supply Chains

PICTURE CREDIT: Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita/Unsplash
PICTURE CREDIT: Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita/Unsplash

On Monday a list was released by KnowTheChain ranking the top 40 global technology companies according to their methods to the address the risk of forced labour within their supply chains. The ranking considered factors including ‘purchasing practices, monitoring and auditing processes’. Within the production of tech goods there are many small components that are often sourced from places aimed at cheap production, in which the workers are vulnerable to exploitative and forced labour conditions. Despite this seeming removed from the end glossy product, supply chain regulation accounts for the network of all actors involved from the production, manufacture and distribution of the product, from which the company will profit.

According to this list, Intel, Hewlett Packard and Apple were the three consecutively highest-ranking companies. The assessment indicated that there is an evident correlation between large company size (and likely CSR budget) and the capacity to address the risks of forced labour within supply chains.

Since the list was initially complied in 2016, there has been progress made by most of the 40 companies. This is likely due to the growing pressure applied by modern slavery compliance legislation, which forces business practices to put their mind to the issue of forced labour. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act was considered the global benchmark solution to ensuring corporate supply chain transparency, and the USA & Australia have followed suit with similar supply chain provisions. Generically, this obliges commercial organisations submit a slavery and trafficking statement.

On top of this greater regulatory pressure, the rise in social media and accountability has led to higher consumer pressure on major technology companies to address the issues of forced labour.

For the full ranking by KnowTheChain, read here. 

Nuanced Supply Chain Led Modern Slavery Legislation in Australia

There has been significant movement in Australia this week around the introduction to the Modern Slavery Act for Australia in 2018. This is being viewed as “historic legislation” as it pushes for nuanced supply chain based solutions involving individuals, business and public sector commitment, rather than the previous criminal justice perspective.

The major issues businesses have faced are in allocating resources and having limited education on addressing modern slavery in their supply chains. The new regulations are designed to avoid profit loss, but businesses will be accountable and at the forefront of addressing this issue. To comply with the new legislation, they will have to report on their efforts to eliminate modern slavery. Slavery will become an issue discussed by top management or Board Members of businesses rather than simply CSR efforts.

Technology is being developed to assist in these processes, including the block-chain systems, which document every valid contract in a supply chain. However, active commitment from the top-tier stakeholders is ultimately essential to address modern slavery through on going enforcement.

Modern slavery is a severe national issue with 4,300 living in this condition according to the Global Slavery Index, and a widespread issue amongst Asia-Pacific. Experts including Luis C deBaca, are viewing this as the opportunity for the Australian government to be a regional policy leader in addressing the on going problem.

Click here to read further information reported by ProBono on Australia’s Modern Slavery advancements. 

 

Slavery Still Pervades the ‘Fairtrade’ Coffee Industry

Historically, in counties such as Brazil, coffee was a majority slave industry. Although today slavery is illegal in all coffee producing countries, it still exists in forms of coercion, exploitation and forced labour in an industry of 26 million people.

In terms of developing country exports, coffee is the second most valuable commodity. The majority of capital is made via the end product, usually sold in the developed world via coffee shops and supermarkets. Due to the volatile price of coffee, there is significant risk of exploitation within the workers’ supply chain, stemming from its original sources primarily in developing countries. Farm owners have no leverage on the commodity price and therefore bear the consequences of price flux, making labourers on their farms the most vulnerable people within the supply chain.

Smallholders produce coffee on farms of less than 25 acres, and have relatively fairer working conditions and more sustainable production. In comparison to Estates, however, they do not have the resources to stay competitive when prices drop despite being responsible for over half of global coffee production. Estates produce coffee on more than 25 acres, and in contrast have economies of scale which do not suffer such consequences of price flux, however tend to be more exploitative than Smallholder farms. Harvesting coffee is a seasonal job, so migrant labour systems have developed (primarily) for Estates, often from poorer and desperate neighbouring regions, which leads to exploitation by farmers. Migrant workers who are extremely dependant on their employers are at high risk of being put out of work when harvest demands.

The major issues amongst coffee labourers tend to be low wages, lack of signed or contracts altogether, dismal living conditions including lack of privacy, safety, sanitation, and adequate housing. For example cases of 40-60 families living together in overcrowded warehouse spaces have been reported.

In 2016, countries that produced coffee using forced or child labour were Côte d’Ivoire, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam as recorded by the U.S. Department of Labour’s ‘List of Goods Made with Forced Labor and Child Labor’. However, along with the lack of supply chain regulation in this industry, there are limited comprehensive studies done to investigate forced labour. A 2012 report in Peru found that Fairtrade coffee did not produce a higher standard of work for farmers. In 2014, a study within Uganda and Ethiopia suggests the agricultural labourers of Fairtrade coffee had lower wages and living standards than non-Fairtrade labourers. The most extreme example is within Ethiopia where non-Fairtrade labourers earned 5% below the median wage whereas the ‘Fairtrade’ workers earned 60% below. This highlights an alarming example of unaccounted labour abuse within coffee supply chains that are presented as ‘Fairtrade’.

The issue stems from the Fairtrade Certification, which pays coffee producers who meet certain labour, environmental and production standards an above market ‘Fairtrade’ price. This aims to empower growers, particularly of the Smallholder bracket, to develop ethically and sustainably, whilst ensuring the coffee is of high quality. However, this system is problematic because it requires producer groups to be transparent and accountable when they do not have the incentive to do so. Consumer actions and intentions are relayed through the coffee roasters and importers, which is where the Fairtrade Certification is regulated and awarded. Critics suggest information is collected from voluntary surveys, and such stakeholders do not have the authority or means to ensure a forced labour free supply chain.

Evidence suggests that Fairtrade coffee does successfully assist some Smallholder coffee farmers, but it does not prevent conditions of forced labour or alleviate poverty as it intends. The Fairtrade certification must either be seen as a means for consumers to assist in the reduction of slave labour to work alongside other legal responses to abuses within this industry or it must be adapted and adopted as a centrally regulated certification. Alone, current means to denote a brand ‘Frairtrade’ does not have enough weight to eradicate forced labour from the global coffee supply chain.