G20: Do leaders mean what they say on modern slavery?

Cindy Berman, Head of Knowledge and Learning, The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)

How seriously should we take G20 leaders on modern slavery and human rights due diligence if trade union rights are repressed?

 What does it mean when G20 leaders make a commitment to help eliminate child labour, human trafficking and forced labour?

How much hope should we pin on the G20 Leaders’ Declaration of 8th July when they emphasised that “fair and decent wages” as well as “social dialogue” are key components of sustainable and inclusive global supply chains?

G20 countries are powerful and make up 75% of world trade. These political leaders have serious leverage, individually and collectively, to bring about change for good. But leadership with credibility requires integrity – aligning their words with their deeds. Let’s look at their track record.

What does it mean when G20 leaders make a commitment to help eliminate child labour, human trafficking and forced labour? 

Seven of the G20 have amongst the worst ratings (a score of 5) in the world on the Global Rights Index of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). That means that in China, India, Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico – all part of the G20 – there is no guarantee of rights for workers. While there may be some legislation that spells out certain rights, in effect, workers are unable to access their rights and violent repression is not uncommon.  

What, for example, should the 24 Indian migrant workers who were found in conditions of forced labour in Saudi Arabia expect from the G20 statement? Not only did the Indian government fail to protect their own migrant workers from abuse and exploitation abroad, the Saudi Government failed to monitor labour conditions in the construction sector where these workers were found. A climate of impunity enabled their employer to take full advantage of their vulnerability to criminal exploitation and abuse.

Furthermore, Brazil, the UK and the USA only have an ITUC score of 4, which indicates systematic violation of workers’ rights with fundamental access to freedom of association and collective bargaining under threat. Yet, all three countries can be singled out for their political leadership in taking important steps in the fight against modern slavery:

  • Brazil forced companies to clean up their act through binding public disclosure legislation; its so called “dirty list” has significantly helped to eradicate forced labour in supply chains. Since 2002, there has been a massive collective effort that has included huge investment in labour inspectors, the judiciary, police, trade unions, civil society and the media. Over 50,000 workers have consequently been rescued from exploitation.
  • The UK adopted the first Modern Slavery Act, with an important Clause 54 requiring companies with an annual turnover of £36m to make an annual public statement on the steps they are taking to ensure that modern slavery is not taking place in their own operations or their global supply chains. Companies are expected to demonstrate improvements on their actions year-on-year.
  • The USA too has given serious political attention and resources to the fight against trafficking and forced labour: the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the pioneering California Transparency Act and the ban of imported goods made by slave and child labour, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015. The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, whilst not uncontroversial, has also persuaded governments to take negative ratings seriously, as their performance has been linked to US foreign policy engagement and resources.

It is therefore even more disappointing that labour rights continue to be violated in Brazil, the UK and USA, and that the ability of workers to access their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining is seriously compromised. As such, it is unfortunate that governments and companies cannot see how critical unions are to tackling modern slavery. When workers have the right to negotiate their own terms and conditions of work, the likelihood of them ending up in a situation of forced labour is negligible.

However, there remains a sense of hope that some G20 countries are joining the dots between the causes and consequences of exploitation and worker abuse.

However, there remains a sense of hope that some G20 countries are joining the dots between the causes and consequences of exploitation and worker abuse.

Germany, France and Italy all get a 1 rating – where there is no regular violation of workers’ rights. Workers can freely associate, defend their rights collectively with the government or companies and improve working conditions through collective bargaining. More specifically, France has recently passed a due diligence law that makes it compulsory for large companies to establish a due diligence plan that contains measures taken to identify and prevent the occurrence of human rights risks.

At the Ethical Trading Initiative, we recognise the essential role of trade unions in the struggle for decent work, inclusive economic growth and the fight against modern slavery. As part of that recognition, we have produced a Human Rights Due Diligence Framework based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We have also published free guidance on Modern Slavery (focused on forced labour) and Child Labour. Developed with input from companies, trade unions and NGOs, they provide practical advice on how companies can prevent, manage and mitigate the risks of labour rights violations. 

We are clear that governments, as well as companies, need to “walk the talk” to end human rights abuses. The G20 statement will be useless unless it represents serious intent for action, resources and a willingness to work with key stakeholders. Respecting the rights of workers and engaging with unions would be a good place to start.  


This blog is part of an ongoing series encouraging dialogue on, and raising the visibility of the G20 Summit as a business and human rights opportunity.