Human trafficking and forced labour are huge problems on a global scale. An estimated 20.9 million men, women and children worldwide are in forced labour at any one time with 90% of these individuals exploited by businesses in the private economy. 14.2 million (68%) are victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing (especially garments and textiles, and food processing and packaging); all known to be high-risk industries. Business and government has a compelling responsibility – economic, legal and moral – to address these human rights violations.
In May 2013, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) convened an expert meeting on the subject of addressing human trafficking and forced labour in business relationships in the context of supply chains. This brief report has been prepared subsequently with a specific focus on two abusive employment and recruitment practices which are known to cause or contribute to forced labour exploitation: recruitment fees charged to migrant workers and confiscating of workers’ passports or other identity documents by employers. It is based on desk-research and information gathered from meeting participants.
High recruitment fees, typically inflated by exorbitant loan repayments taken out by migrant workers in order to pay the fees, can lead to debt bondage, which traps individuals in situations of work for little or no pay, often with no ability to leave the employment until the debt is repaid. Debt bondage is a form of forced labour, defined as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”.
Employers’ confiscating of workers’ identity documents allows employers to control workers’ freedom of movement and prevent them from leaving the employment. This is also identified as forced labour if workers are unable to access their documents on-demand and if they feel they cannot leave the job without risking their loss.
Both practices constitute human rights violations which are often also illegal. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the authoritative global reference points on the duties of states to protect against rights abuses involving non-state actors, and the responsibilities of business with respect to human rights. They provide an important framework for businesses to apply in tackling these issues.
In recent years, repeated high profile media coverage, dedicated and persistent activism by civil society groups, intense pressure from trade unions and transparency and disclosure regulation has helped to place trafficking and forced labour on company agendas. Companies have themselves also taken the initiative, recognising the potential reputational and legal risks of actual or perceived involvement in forced labour and trafficking.