Guest blog: Are businesses doing enough to tackle forced labour?

An estimated 24.9 million people are victims of forced labour around the world, 16 million of whom are exploited in the private sector. The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has a high-risk of exploitation, with companies’ supply chains characterized by workers in vulnerable conditions, from migrant workers at risk of being charged exorbitant recruitment fees for a job (up to £3,500, which one worker reported it would take two years to pay back), or students and interns forced to work on production lines irrelevant to their area of study, under threat of not graduating.

Yet despite these risks, companies are failing to adequately demonstrate action being taken to protect and support workers in vulnerable conditions. Over the last three years, KnowTheChain has evaluated 119 companies in three high-risk sectors - ICT, food and beverage, and apparel and footwear – which allowed for the comparison of corporate practices across sectors and over time. Its latest report finds that, despite clear progress in corporate efforts to address forced labour in their supply chains, with 90 percent of companies ranked in the 2016 and 2018 benchmarks improving their disclosure, persistent gaps remain.

KnowTheChain has identified four key areas in the fight against forced labour that companies must address in order to drive real change for supply chain workers.

First, companies are taking little action to address exploitative recruitment practices in their supply chains. Fewer than half of the 119 companies benchmarked disclosed policies prohibiting worker-paid recruitment fees. The ICT sector has disclosed the largest number of policies that address recruitment fees when compared with other sectors: however, ICT companies’ disclosure also shows the most notable gap between policy and practice. Twenty-two companies disclose a policy that requires recruitment fees to be reimbursed to workers, but only five companies disclose data or examples of returning fees to workers.

Second, empowering workers is key to ending forced labour, but companies show limited efforts to support and enable supply chain workers to exercise their rights. Only 15% of all benchmarked companies report the ways in which they work with suppliers to promote freedom of association in their supply chains, and only 18% disclose engaging with supply chain workers on their labour rights.

Third, buyers have better scores than their suppliers, even though most buyers require their suppliers to apply their standards to the next tier down. Human rights and labour abuses often take place in the lower tiers of supply chains, but even large buyers are challenged by understanding and addressing labour conditions at the second-tier.

Finally, companies based in Asia score lower than those based in Europe and North America across sectors. Particularly in the electronics sector, a significant amount of production takes place in Asia, hosting many migrant and women workers. There is a need for companies based in Asia, and buyers sourcing from Asia-based companies, to work towards creating better conditions and protections for workers.

KnowTheChain’s cross-sector report is accompanied by an Excel tool offering guidance to companies on how to start or expand their efforts to address forced labour in their supply chains. ICT companies that seek to tackle the risks of forced labour in their supply chains have an opportunity to build on the sector’s good practices, and be part of ensuring that the future of this powerful industry is free of forced labour.

This is a guest blog by Rosie Monaghan of KnowTheChain

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