Blog reposted with permission from The Mekong Club
When speaking about modern slavery in Asia we have often been asked:
“If they don’t like their job, why don’t they just leave?”
This question highlights one of the most common misconceptions around modern slavery and forced labour in supply chains, that if the constraints on freedoms cannot be physically seen, then they must not exist.
The truth is people who are victims of modern slavery are not usually being held in place by shackles and chains, they may be free to go home to their families each day after work, they may not be beaten each day by the employer, they may have voluntarily walked into this job or even paid a recruiter for the privilege of working. Why would someone in forced labour in supply chains continue to work for an employer who exploits them or who takes their wages? Why would they not simply leave?
Unfortunately, modern slavery has its own challenges. The answer is debt. Debt is one of the most fundamental global drivers of modern slavery in Asia and around the world today. This hidden prison entraps millions of workers into a form of bonded labour that is oppressive, suffocating, and incredibly challenging to escape.
This debt is often initiated during the recruitment period itself and is perpetuated by the common practice of recruitment fee payments by workers wishing to gain employment in oversaturated industries. Recruitment fees may be charged by recruitment agencies, the brokers that they employ to source workers, or even by the employers themselves. In many countries this practice is entirely legal, and, in some industries, it is so commonplace that workers are mistrustful of job offerings that do not include recruitment fee requirements. Workers victimized into modern slavery often willingly pay these fees especially for jobs where there are many others seeking the same kind of employment. Recruitment fees are particularly prevalent amongst migrant workers seeking low-skilled, low-wage jobs such as in factories, construction, domestic work, or agriculture. As such, forced labour in supply chains persists.
While these fees may be technically legal in many cases, unscrupulous actors may charge excessive fees or hide fees within the process that may lead the workers to take on debt to make the payments. Often these loans are offered by the agencies, employers, or related unregulated money lenders and may have staggeringly high interest rates. Exploiters prey on the desperation of their victims for work and a lack of financial literacy, as well as deception and lies to bring the person under their financial control, resulting in a modern slavery situation.
Once the workers are indebted, they quickly find themselves working to clear their debts. This can very quickly become a cycle of exploitation where they do not receive the wages that they expected, are charged more hidden fees and costs, and must even take on more debts simply to survive. They are no longer working to thrive and provide for their families. They are working simply to tread water in a rising tide of debt and abuse. They have no choice but to continue. This highly effective method of control is used on millions of workers across a multitude of industries in the world today. In the most extreme cases, this debt can transcend generations as these unregulated debts are passed from parents to children with no end in sight from a modern slavery cycle.
Through our work addressing modern slavery in Asia and around the world, the link between debts and forced labour in supply chains is clear. Addressing how workers fall into debt during the recruitment process will be one of the key pillars if society is to end modern slavery for good.
HTS Database Articles for further reading:
- Opaque Supply Chains are Hiding Whether the Fashion Industry is Benefiting from State-Imposed Forced Labor
- A lot of abuse for little pay’: how US farming profits from exploitation and brutality
- There Could be Labor Exploitation in Your Coffee Cup: Here’s How It Got There
- How Can Mobile Technology Help Detect and Mitigate Migrants’ Labor Abuse in Global Supply Chains?
- The Moment of Truth for the Global Seafood Industry
- Domestic Workers, Forced Labor, and the Locked Doors of Covid-19
Or search the HTS Global Database using the search terms Forced Labor, Labor Trafficking or Labor Exploitation.
Mekong Club’s Modern Slavery and SMEs Tool:
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are non-subsidiary, independent companies that
employ fewer than a given number of employees. This number varies across countries. The most frequent upper limit designating an SME is 250 employees, as in the European Union. Because of the size of these companies, they often face resource challenges in responding to the multitude of requirements from third parties (such as client due diligence from buyers and business partners) to demonstrate their modern slavery responses.
The Mekong Club developed some sample questions for SMEs to create their own voluntary (FAQ) document and to help them respond to routine queries related to their efforts associated with modern slavery as well as to ensure that they are addressing potential labor trafficking in their hiring and work process’. When SMEs offer responses in this format, it allows brands and consumers to better understand the processes and procedures used by them to combat modern slavery in the workplace and helps ensure that the issue is addressed as a standard part of company policy.
Download the FAQ guide here.
Author: Phoebe Ewen
The Mekong Club is a catalyst for change, uniting and mobilizing businesses to bring about sustainable practices toward the fight against modern slavery. By building much-needed awareness, commitment and collaboration through deep and trusted relationships with its memebers, the Mekong Club helps strengthen industries such as banking, hospitality, garment, food and beverage, toys and footwear against modern slavery. Members receive up-to- date information and expert training on issues pertinent to their industry, meet regularly to learn and share best practices, and are given access to numerous tools and resources. Click here to learn more about The Mekong Club or access some of their publicly available tools.