Modern slavery is again making headlines with recent reports highlighting forced labour practices in some unsurprising countries, but also some very surprising ones — which perfectly illustrates just how prevalent this problem is within global supply chains.
According to the human rights organisation, Equidem, modern slavery is alive and well at Dubai’s Expo 2020, a six-month event in the UAE aimed at attracting business, high-tech innovation and residents to the Gulf state.
In its study released this month, Equidem claimed that migrant workers who built the site and keep it running faced racial discrimination, bullying, forced labour practices, illegal recruitment fees, non-payment of wages and the retention of passports
“These practices violate UAE law yet, as far as Equidem is aware, none have been investigated by the authorities, nor has any individual or business been brought to account,” the report said.
Meanwhile, over in America — the Land of the Free — the country’s guest worker visa programme is now under scrutiny following claims of horrifying conditions at farms in Georgia.
The H-2A programme allows farmers to temporarily bring foreign nationals into the US for seasonal employment, however a federal investigation uncovered a catalogue of abuses including extortionate recruitment fees.
So, if you thought slavery was consigned to the annals of history, think again.
The most common cause of modern slavery is debt bondage, also known as bonded labour and debt slavery, and it occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt, usually to an illegal or unscrupulous recruiter.
Having existed for hundreds of years — debt bondage was used to trap indentured labourers into working on plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia, following the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade — it has become an insidious by-product of today’s global supply chains.
The International Labour Organisation currently estimates that 50% of victims of forced labour in the private economy are affected by debt bondage — around 8 million people worldwide. And it’s not only a problem in emerging economies or third world countries.
Carolyn Kitto, the Australian director of Be Slavery Free recently said that slavery was that pervasive that “almost every business has a risk of slavery in their supply chains.”
Thankfully, and possibly in accordance with the cycle of evolving values, times appear to be changing with governments tightening existing laws or establishing new ones, ethical consumers making their voices heard via their wallets and major business players acting to protect reputations and profits.
In 2019, the Australian government launched a ground-breaking programme in which companies and investors generating more than A$100 million ($71 million) in revenue became legally obliged to detail how they were managing the risk of slavery in their supply chains. Coming a little late to the party, the UK now has a Modern Slavery (Amendment) Bill working its way through parliament while a new law in Germany comes into effect in 2023.
These are all encouraging signs, and it’s not only governments finally tackling the issue.
As the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed said, “Modern slavery is a blight in our world that we must eradicate,” and one of the most effective ways of eradicating this blight is to cut out the middlemen who lure vulnerable workers into debt bondage.
Step forward two Malaysian businesses that are currently leading by example in this regard.
This week, Sime Darby Plantation(SDP) said it would set aside RM82.02 million (US$19.6 million) to compensate current and former migrant workers who paid recruitment fees to secure jobs. It has also established an ethical recruitment policy that covers the appointment of suitable recruitment agents managed by the appropriate checks and balances to ensure workers are no longer exploited or encumbered with recruitment fees.
I recently spoke to SDP’s Head of Sustainability, Rashyid Redza Anwarudin, who told me this: “We will not tolerate any abuse of migrant workers. As a major employer, we believe that we have the responsibility to ensure that our workforce is hired ethically and responsibly according to commitments outlined in our Human Rights Charter.
“Responsible recruitment is a key enabler in adopting labour practices that respect workers’ rights and we do not tolerate any forms of forced or bonded labour, slavery, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation.”
Elsewhere in Malaysia, and following allegations of forced labour by US Customs and Border Protection, Top Glove reached out to the CBP to establish better working conditions for workers, which also included repaying more than US$30 million (RM125 million) in recruitment fees.
As employers of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, action by firms like SDP should have an impact on illegal recruitment agents that ply their trade in countries like India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
However, the simple truth is we are all complicit in the crime of modern slavery, whether we are businesses that fail to safeguard against abuses in supply chains or governments that put trade before accountability or consumers who turn a blind eye to the sweatshop workers who make the clothes we wear
We can all do more and we must do more — whether we are politicians, company executives or consumers. In a civilised society, no person should have to pay to get a job.
Andrea Buseld is a Europe-based freelance journalist