Recently, the Canadian federal government agency responsible for monitoring alleged human rights abuses in global brands investigated several international brands for forced labor. ILO describes forced labor as “situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” Forced labor is one of the most serious human rights issues in supply chains - in 2021, the ILO estimated that there are about 28 million forced laborers globally.
There are serious legal and financial implications for global companies whose supply chains contain forced labor, including detention of imports and large fines. Therefore, it is crucial for companies to understand the risks of their products and services being produced with forced labor and eliminate this risk through prevention. Labor Solutions is an Asia-based social impact business working on improving workers’ lives for the past decade.
Here are our recommendations to combat forced labor in your supply chain;
Educating Across the Board: First Step in Combating Forced Labor
Every supply chain has some risk of forced labor. For global buyers with complex supply chains, it is difficult to understand and address the forced labor risks within their value chains alone. That is why the first prudent step of action in combating forced labor is to educate stakeholders, including:
Sourcing team: Raise awareness of this prevalent issue and provide training on how to identify, prevent, and mitigate forced labor.
Suppliers and their line managers: Provide training on what forced labor means and its indicators, why it is bad for business, as well as preventative and mitigation measures including how to work with responsible recruiters and agencies.
Workers: Provide training to help them understand their rights, understand what forced labor means in their local legal context, and what to do if they see or experience forced labor.
In early 2022, we implemented eLearning training for an Indonesian factory on understanding their rights and the importance of speaking up about workplace rights and safety issues. There was an immediate 50% increase in the number of health and safety messages and reports – which indicates that educating and aligning your value chain can help create a more transparent + trusting environment for the workers. Read more about this case study here.
Targeted Worker Surveys to Uncover Issues Within the Value Chain
Supply chain risk reports can be a good starting point to understand forced labor issues within the business value chain. However, these reports and assessments usually do not consider local context and supplier-specific risks. Audits similarly are informative but assess the past and do not measure the indicators of future risks.
That is why the next course of action is to conduct global worker surveys within the value chain to help identify forced labor risks. For regions with known risks, it is recommended to add specific risk-based questions to get accurate responses. It is crucial to engage with workers directly to get representative data about their experience of workplace conditions and to involve suppliers early in the process to build trust and accountability.
Working with suppliers to design and implement the surveys, and to make sure incentives are aligned can also help ensure that the questionnaires are culturally relevant, workers participate without fear of reprisals, and the results are accurate and reliable. Using Worker Survey technologies like WOVO, you can easily deploy surveys at scale across your value chain like adidas.
Some issues uncovered during worker surveys will have clear root causes or precedents that management is aware of, while others may be surprising. When employee experience surveys indicate that there are issues, it is important to investigate further through focus group discussions (FGDs) or other follow up to uncover the underlying conditions and factors.
Systematic Solutions to Minimize Risks Throughout
As these surveys and assessments are periodical, they are not enough to keep risks under observation continuously. To minimize the risk, the value chain needs a systematic process and tools to prevent and identify forced labor.
One way to do this is to ensure that all workers within the value chain have access to a functioning grievance mechanism provided by their employer. Through these mechanisms and tools, workers can make complaints to their employers about workplace issues, including improper recruitment practices and payments.
These mechanisms can also serve as an early warning system. With adequate data collection, these tools and mechanisms may help detect patterns that predict the likelihood of human rights issues within the supply chain. It is important to continuously monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of these systems and make improvements to better suit your unique supply chain needs.
Work with your suppliers to set clear guidelines and expectations for them and ensure that they are offering transparent, anonymous tools for their workers. By collaborating with suppliers in this process and showing them trust, it is more likely for them to share the issues uncovered within their supply chain. A successful process will provide buyers reassurance and suppliers with additional support.
Prevention, Remediation + Improvements for Forced Labor
The effort needed to combat forced labor is tremendous and usually, the scale is huge. It is important to understand that this cannot and does not need to be done alone. Engaging & seeking the support and advice of trade unions, human rights organizations, or other local organizations can be a key to preventing, identifying, and remediating issues + making localized improvements.
Every supplier should screen recruiters and agencies, and contractually obligate compliance with responsible recruitment practices. This includes ensuring workers do not pay recruitment fees, that contracts are provided, and terms are clear. If transportation and/or housing are provided as part of the employment, the cost must be reasonable, and workers should be informed in advance of their final take-home pay. Workers also must always be able to access their identity documents and quit or leave the workplace without punishment.
If forced labor is identified in your supply chain, it is important to take steps to immediately remediate the situation and prevent it from happening again. This may involve:
Remediation that directly addresses the harm caused to any workers impacted by forced labor, including counseling and financial assistance. Local rights organizations, trade unions and other industry stakeholders may be able to support remediation.
Working with the supplier to develop an action plan that addresses the root causes of forced labor. This can include checklists for responsible recruitment, policies and codes of conduct for suppliers and recruiters, and training.
Capacity building at all levels of the supply chain so that all supplier employers understand forced labor and how to implement responsible practices.
Reporting and grievance procedures for workers and other impacted individuals that provide adequate protection and support for reporters and are promoted by employers.
Monitoring the supplier to ensure that the action plan is implemented effectively.
Regional and industry context can be important when designing an effective forced labor prevention, remediation, and improvement plan. Please reach out to our team of human rights experts to discuss what makes the most sense in your value chains.