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Mobile phones, clothes, flowers, or shoes. Many of the products we consume and use every day are produced by people trapped in what is called labor exploitation. First, what do we mean by labor exploitation and what are its principal forms and characteristics around the world? According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), labor exploitation involves workers who, against their will, accept miserable overworking conditions and receive low wages.  

In other cases, such as that of forced labor situations, workers are coerced to work due to violence or intimidation. Truth is, it is a challenge to define such complex concepts since its definition varies across the globe. There can be a lengthy debate of when a worker is acting out of free will or under coercion. People in extreme poverty may be forced by economic reasons to accept unfair working conditions. Irregular migrants are particularly at risk, as without legal documents they may put up with anything rather than risk denunciation to the authorities followed by deportation.

According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 25 million people are estimated to be within situations of forced labor, seeing their rights taken away. This translates into 5,7 victims of forced labor for every 1000 humans

Prevalence (per 1000 persons) of forced labor, by age and category

Although forced labor is more predominant in under-development countries, it can be found in every corner and industry of our globalized world.

Number and prevalence of persons in forced labor around the world

A Poverty cycle

Why would anyone willingly put themselves in a position so vulnerable to the exploitation by others? Shouldn’t they simply find a better job, perhaps pursuit higher levels of education? Surely, it should be easy…

Poverty creates vulnerability to these detrimental forms of work, which in turn contribute to perpetuate the poverty of the workers. It is not a cycle one easily escapes from. Just try and put yourself in such a worker’s shoes: to leave your exploited position (assuming you even have the option to walk away) will mean a significant reduction in income, which you may not be able to afford. Even if you managed to scrape up enough savings to put yourself and your family through a jobless period, there’s still the question of finding another job. Remember, you are a poor, likely uneducated, unskilled laborer. Do you think there are lots of opportunities available?

If the job doesn’t pay well, savings are likely to be scarce, and no company can compete for long with the low prices, achieved by those grossly underpaying for labor, leaving only the exploiters to provide work for the entire labor force. 

Increasing qualifications is also not an option: education is costly and requires time, and long hours working for little time doesn’t leave much room for personal investment.

Forced Labor in Supply Chains

We all know we live in the age of globalization. The t-shirt you are wearing right now may have been to more countries in its short existence than you have in your entire life, one land per stage of production. And yet, it still manages to make its way to you so amazingly cheap! Ever wondered how? (1)

The truth is many companies exploit their workers to cut costs

Most products go through a lengthy chain of producers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers before they reach each consumer. Consequently, it is a challenge to control who is working where and under which conditions. Companies have a responsibility to ensure no forced labor is being used in the production of the goods they sell, playing a key role in building a sustainable economy and society. 

Agriculture provides the raw materials for most finished products – the sector is packed with cases of forced labor

Some companies have taken measures proactively. However, decades of “voluntary corporate social responsibility” have failed to protect people. There is a need for a higher-scale improvement that is hard to achieve with voluntary action. 

Fortunately, progressive steps have been made to combat forced labor, such as the development of modern forced labor legislation. The Introduction of the UK Modern Slavery Act required large corporations to report their efforts to tackle forced labor in their supply chains.

Additionally, at the beginning of 2022, the European Commission released its highly anticipated mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence directive to foster sustainable and responsible corporate behavior across global value chains. This is a notable moment in the history of human rights. This purpose would impose a large duty on EU and third-country companies to identify and address actual and potentially harmful impacts on human rights in the firm’s operations, as well in value chains.

Children

Children around the world are also routinely engaged in labor that is considered detrimental to their health and development. In the world’s poorest countries, slightly more than 1 in 5 children are engaged in child labor. Eastern and Southern Africa have the largest proportion of child laborers, having approximately 26 % of children aged 5-17 performing this type of activity. 

The entire exploitation chain is particularly vile when with comes to kids. Children who are forced to work (either by someone or by their circumstances) are the ones who will have more trouble breaking the cycle.

Child workers are paid even less than adults and are often preferred by employers, as they are less likely to strike or have demands. Besides that, a large pool of child labor available hurts unskilled wages, worsening the poverty issue and delaying even more technological progress. This leads to harder conditions for families, who are more likely than ever to send their children to work.

Because it is children that we are talking about, the consequences spread even further along in time. Working children are more likely to underperform academically, as shown by data from 12 Latin American countries; they find that third and fourth graders who attend school and never conduct market or domestic work perform 28% better on mathematics tests and 19% better on language tests than children who both attend school and work. Besides that, they are also more likely to drop out of school, which has negative consequences on the child’s development and their future prospects, and on the country’s chances of social and economic development.

But surely, everyone agrees child labor is bad. Why isn’t it simply forbidden? 

In most places, it is. But, again, it is not so simple as that. Even in some places where they technically can’t, children continue to work, mostly in agriculture or factories. And we must remember that many of these little workers are the sole providers, or at least a crucial part of their sustenance for their families (with their parents being unemployed or unable to work).

The ILO estimates that some 246 million children are currently involved in child labour

How to end

What if we just ended it? What would the actual impact be?

There are two major sides to consider when answering this question: these workers’ incomes and the impact on consumers of the products they contribute to.

We’ve discussed already the negative impact on these families of simply removing these exploitative jobs, namely their reduction in income. To prevent them from (further) descent into poverty, either robust welfare programs would have to be set up, were the job posts to simply disappear, or firms would keep the worker, now paying fair wages and not engaging in harmful practices for their employees. 

Either way, production costs go up, which the manufacturers can either absorb (assuming they can afford it) or pass along the production chain to the consumer. So, consumers will likely be paying more. Remember your well-traveled t-shirt? Not so cheap anymore. The same goes for your coffee, your chocolate, or your electronics.

In more concrete figures, we are talking about a practice that annually generates 150 billion USD in profits, an ILO estimate. The same organization estimates ending child labor alone to cost around 760 billion USD worldwide (including the cost of adequate schooling for all 246 million kids now working) to achieve long-term benefits worth 5.1 trillion.

How about those augmented prices? Although it is hard to estimate what that would look like, we can use products now in the market which are branded Fairtrade (meaning, among other things, that they stay clear of labor exploitation in their production chain) as a proxy of how much more the average consumer would have to pay for everyday items. A quick search online shows, for example, chocolate with a fairtrade stamp priced at 2.70€, over twice what a similar chocolate costs. A t-shirt marketed as Fairtrade can cost as much as 30€ – the same as several packs of shirts in some stores.

Fairtrade products are often more expensive

Of course, some of the disparity comes from other practices in Fairtrade (environment-friendly, etc.) or simple lack of economies of scale, but the fact remains: breaking away from this cycle will be costly. Yet, it surely is a price worth paying.


(1) To find out more about this check out our article about Fast Fashion here.


Sources: Unicef, International Labour Organization, Delta Net, The Woodgrove Outlander, BIICL, White & Case, European Commission, EY.

Constança Almeida

Leonor Cunha

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