Prospective migrants queue up for a passport in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Prospective migrants queue up for a passport in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo credit: Pete Pattisson

Forced labour is when a person enters (or provides) work or service against their freedom of choice, and cannot leave it without penalty or the threat of penalty.

This page highlights some questions that you and your company should ask in relation to workers in your supply chains to help you identify their vulnerability to forced labour and understand why addressing forced labour is relevant to your business. It is not intended to be exhaustive, as methods employed to exploit workers constantly change and adapt.

  1. Do workers feel free to refuse overtime?

Compulsory overtime above the legal limits can constitute forced labour when combined with the threat of a penalty. For example, if workers fear dismissal for refusing such overtime, or if it is the only way that a vulnerable worker can earn the minimum wage, then they can be considered victims of forced labour.

Research carried out by campaign groups in a factory in Bangalore, India that supplies a British supermarket chain found employees earned considerably less than a local union’s calculation of the living wage. In addition, employees complained that bosses forced them to work overtime or face the sack. One employee told colleagues about a forthcoming union meeting on a Sunday, the workers’ only day off. Bosses then imposed compulsory overtime, thereby violating their union rights and also threatened staff with severe punishment if they failed to work on that day.

  1. Did migrant workers pay a fee to get a job outside their hometown or country? What are the terms of repayment?

Migrant workers in particular are at risk of being in debt bondage when they pay a recruitment fee to take up employment that they cannot repay within a reasonable period. This can leave them feeling bound to the labour broker or their employer and can be exacerbated by wage deductions for goods and services charged at inflated prices.

Hundreds of Indians and Bangladeshis were reported to be trapped in bonded labour after giving as much as £725 to an agency for factory jobs in Mauritius producing British branded clothing, which paid as little as 22 pence (36 US cents) an hour. Even though they were made to work 70 hours a week, some workers’ initial debts equalled over 11 months’ pay. NGOs are also aware of cases where migrant workers are debt bonded to agents, exacerbated by a lack of work on arrival at their destination.

  1. Do workers retain complete control over their personal documents or have free access to them, if they are kept by their employer?

Workers’ documents (e.g. passports) should not be retained. However if they are, for example if it is a requirement of local law, then workers must have unhindered access. If workers cannot or feel that they are unable to leave their jobs without risking the loss of these documents, this amounts to forced labour.

Anti-Slavery’s research found traffickers utilise the removal of documents and migrants’ uncertainty about their rights and status to subject them to forced labour. In some cases workers entered into the employment relationship voluntarily, but were then coerced into a position of forced labour.

  1. Are workers paid on time, directly and in legal tender? Do they have payslips that accurately detail the hours they have worked and the rates which they are paid?

Workers are much more vulnerable to exploitation when they do not have clear payslips detailing the hours they have worked, their wage rates and any legal deductions. Workers are likely to be dependent on their employer and therefore more vulnerable if they are paid in vouchers or receive “in-kind” payment.

A newspaper exposed the use of bonded labour within the UK for packing produce which appeared on the shelves of big name supermarket chains. One workers’ wages for the week amounted to 78 pence after inflated deductions for housing, administrative costs, and interest on loans. Wages were passed out in brown envelopes with deductions written out by hand making it difficult for an auditor to spot the exploitation.

  1. Do you know who the workers are when you or your suppliers subcontract work? Are you aware of all subcontracting in your supply chain?

If subcontracting is ineffectively regulated or unregulated, there is a greater risk that forced labour or child labour is in your supply chain.

Children as young as 10 were found embroidering girls’ blouses in India for a major international retail chain. One boy was reported to say that he had been working for four months without pay and would not be allowed to leave the job until the fee his family had received was repaid. Others described long hours of unwaged work, as well as threats and beatings. The retail chain was unaware that the clothing had been improperly subcontracted to a sweatshop using child labour.

  1. Is prison labour used in the production of your goods?

Prison labourers linked to private commercial activities must offer themselves voluntarily for employment. Companies should ensure that the terms and conditions of work for prisoners are comparable to those for free workers in the relevant industry.

A Chinese wig manufacturer producing goods for international markets has been accused of using forced prison labour. China’s “re-education through labour” system is classed as forced labour because inmates cannot choose not to work and are usually not paid. In addition, a Hong-Kong based labour rights organization explains that labour re-education camps are for citizens who haven’t been given the benefit of a court trial.

 

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