While slavery is illegal the world over, our current global production system has created newer forms of human subjugation which are no less distressing. We live in a world where obscene accumulation and glaring deprivation coexist side by side. These inequalities manifest themselves within rich and poor countries alike. While the elite capture of wealth and problems of destitution are evident in rich countries as well, the way in which these inequalities manifest themselves in poorer countries is even more brutal and blatant.
Despite its promises of prosperity for all, the advent of globalisation has worsened inequality. As supply chains have become increasingly flexible, multinational corporations increasingly rely on outsourcing and use of varied intermediaries to source their products from the most ‘efficient’ sources to maximise profits for their shareholders. The desperation of poorer countries to obtain foreign investment has led to a so-called ‘race to the bottom of the barrel’. Governments of resource-constrained countries often outbid each other to entice foreign companies and to encourage local exporters even at the cost of neglecting labor rights and environmental consequences.
Given this broader context, it should not be surprising to find use of forced labour across major industries and supply chains. Around 25 million people in the world are estimated to be trapped in varied forms of coercive labour relations. Many of these labourers are being exploited by global supply chains, others are trafficked to other parts of their own countries, or to neighbouring countries, to work in unregulated or shadowy sectors such as the sex trafficking industry. Alarmingly, instead of decreasing, this number of exploited people is suspected to be increasing due to the further consolidation of profit maximising supply chains, alongside other threats such as lingering conflicts, climate change, and now the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trade Ministers of the richest countries — the G7 — have recently issued a communiqué to cooperate and eradicate forced labour in global supply chains. But achieving this goal via rhetorical statements or loosely defined aspiration will not suffice. Civil society organisations are rightly demanding that G7 members need to not only prohibit the import or sale of products made by forced labour, but also hold multinational companies within their jurisdiction responsible for ensuring labour rights and environmental diligence across their supply chains.
Anyone in the world who purchases an article of branded clothing can expect it to be of the same quality and design, no matter where it was manufactured. Consumers can have similar expectations when they buy a burger from a fast-food chain, or drink a branded beverage, no matter in which country they purchase these products from. This level of consistency does not occur automatically. There is a lengthy chain of quality assurance processes used to ensure product consistency. If product quality can be ensured, why don’t big brand names also assure that the products sold by them also confirm to basic labour and environmental standards, no matter where their products are sourced from?
Enhancing accountability of both domestic and multinational businesses to take effective steps to eradicate forced labour from within their own supply chains is not easy. Besides the serious pushback from local elites and multinationals, the task of ensuring that a supply chain is exploitative-free is much more challenging than merely ensuring product quality. This is because labour exploitation not only takes place in factories but also at several other stages of the supply chain, including the sourcing of raw materials, and within the informal sector which is closely linked to factories producing goods for both domestic and the international market.
Unless due emphasis is placed on the use of exploitation of free labour inputs instead of just focusing on product quality and price of the finished products being sold at the tail-end of retail chains, poor people will continue to remain oppressed, and curbing global inequality will not be possible.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2021.
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