Taking the G20 at its word: suggestions for immediate & effective measures to eliminate modern slavery & human trafficking

Claudia Müller-Hoff, Programme Coordinator & Linde Bryk, BeJust Fellow, Business & Human Rights Programme, ECCHR.

"Migrant workers" by Bernard Spragg licensed under CC.0 1.0.

It is up to the G20 to ensure that ‘immediate and effective measures’ are given a mandatory character and are not forgotten in between Hamburg and Buenos Aires.

Eduardo Galeano once wrote: “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others”.

Here, ‘our wealth’ referred to, among other things, Latin America’s rich natural resources.  His quote can also be applied to the persistent global issues of modern slavery and human trafficking.  ‘Our wealth’ can be seen as encompassing human capital: a person’s body that nourishes ‘the prosperity of others’, and that, similar to natural resources, can be exhausted.  That is why mandatory human rights due diligence and supply chain reporting are needed to ensure that there is no workers’ ‘defeat’ is implicit in the economic ‘victory of others’.

An imbalance in wealth distribution seems to be recognised even by the G20 in its declaration this July: Shaping an interconnected world: “…Globalization has created challenges and its benefits have not been shared widely enough…the G20 is determined to shape globalization to benefit all people.”

G20 commitments on the eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking

The G20 stated further: “…we will take immediate and effective measures to eliminate child labour by 2025, forced labour, human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery”; and to: “support access to remedy…”.  It is unclear what the G20 understands as ‘immediate and effective measures’.  What follows are two suggestions for these ‘measures’:

 1. Ensure mandatory human rights due diligence and supply chain reporting

The G20 does not refer to a mandatory reporting duty for businesses, or their suppliers and subcontractors, on human rights due diligence, as is the case with the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law and the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.  While the EU Directive 2014/95, on disclosure of non-financial and diversity information by large undertakings demonstrates a step in the right direction, it lacks the mandatory characteristics and penalties of the French law.

It is up to the G20 to ensure that ‘immediate and effective measures’ are given a mandatory character. 

A mandatory duty for companies in national legislation to report on suppliers and subcontractors can be a business and a human rights opportunity. Large players in the global industry expressed their concern that they do ‘much more’ than their competitors on supply chain due diligence.  They argue that voluntary human rights due diligence obstructs their level playing field.  At the same time this reporting duty can benefit workers, by enabling public monitoring and diminishing the lack of transparency that otherwise contributes to the risk of forced labour in supply chains.  Transparent supply chains also facilitate access to remedy for those who suffer from forced labour practices.  It allows for identification of potentially responsible and solvent actors, such as employers, agents, and parent companies. 

When a migrant worker wants to challenge this situation, the supply chain’s opaqueness complicates identifying those responsible and accessing a remedy. 

Labour situations in Qatar and other Gulf countries illustrate this. Millions of migrant workers occupy the construction and service industries, with an overwhelming amount employed as domestic workers.  At times under conditions that constitute forced labour, migrant workers endure long hours in low-skilled jobs based on unfair contracts, different to those originally agreed upon.  In debt due to recruitment fees equal to or more than a year’s salary, their chances to escape these circumstances, for example in Qatar, can be low.  Employers sometimes confiscate passports and refuse to provide residency papers; without these migrant workers risk large fines when leaving the country.  National legislation does not allow for a switch of employer if the current employer disagrees and migrant workers need their sponsor’s permission to leave the country.  These conditions can amount to forced labour under ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced and Compulsory Labour.  Together with the absence of free will, and the menace of penalty, these conditions also constitute forced labour under article 4(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

When a migrant worker wants to challenge this situation, the supply chain’s opaqueness complicates identifying those responsible and accessing a remedy.  Most migrant workers are not directly employed by large multinational enterprises, but by subcontractors in a second or third tier.  Consequently, they work on different sites every day and illiteracy makes identification of sites, employers and contractors difficult.

 2. Allow for workers organisation: through trade unions and workers committees

The G20 should work to ensure that amongst its members and in relation to their trade partners, the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join a trade union are respected and enacted in national legislations.  The right to organise is essential because it is the only way to counteract the power imbalance between a migrant workers victim of forced labour and the employer.  In Saudi Arabia for example, no legislation provides for the protection of trade unions.  And of the GCC countries, only Kuwait has ratified the ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949 (No, 98).

Companies should set strict requirements throughout their supply chain to prevent labour rights violations, use their leverage to ensure compliance and provide for grievance mechanisms.

The right to organise also means freedom from repression and persecution against trade unions.  It is part of responsible business conduct to recognise the worker’s right to be part of a trade union, and to strike.  Absence of these rights constitutes a risk factor for labour rights violations. Thus, heightened human rights due diligence standards should apply when operating in such a country or with a supplier from such a country.  Further, a company should support the creation of a strong workers’ committee when it comes to suppliers or subcontractors.  Companies should set strict requirements throughout their supply chain to prevent labour rights violations, use their leverage to ensure compliance and provide for grievance mechanisms.

Voices at the G20 summit have claimed that to:“eradicate modern slavery around the world, we need to go much further”.  This calls for mandatory human rights due diligence and supply chain reporting.  It is up to the G20 to ensure that ‘immediate and effective measures’ are given a mandatory character and are not forgotten in between Hamburg and Buenos Aires, where the 2018 G20 summit will take place.

 

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.