Blood, sweat and tears. Being a slave in the 21st century

What does it mean to be a slave in the 21st century? Whilst slavery has been abolished in the European countries in the 18th and 19th century, modern slavery is said to have reached an unprecedented scale — with Pakistan, India and China having the highest number of people living in slavery.

The definition of slavery might be difficult to seize as it is an umbrella concept, capturing different forms of severe exploitation affecting vulnerable workers worldwide, rather than a legal term. It is also hard to quantify, as global data is hardly available and relies on estimations only. The term was defined in a 1926 League of Nations convention as the status of a person over whom others had powers of „ownership“. A supplementary 1956 UN convention, defined associated practices such as serfdom and debt bondage. Additionally, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines forced labour as a situation in which a person enters work or service against its own will and is unable to extricate itself without punishment or the threat of punishment. In 2012, the ILO estimated that 21 million people were in forced labour and other forms of modern slavery.

Qatar, Cambodia and Bangladesh recently made the headlines with actual and referenced manifestations of forced labour.

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, high concerns are raised towards its ability to conduct fairly its infrastructure construction works. Indeed, an investigation from the British daily newspaper The Guardian has revealed that Nepalese migrant labourers have died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar during summer 2013, and thousands more were enduring appalling labour abuses. Nearly everyday, a new coffin arrives in Kathmandu airport, in which lies the corpse of a Nepalese man who had faced exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery. In 2013 according to the Nepalese authorities, 173 Nepalese nationals died in Qatar from workplace accidents, heart failure, suicides or mysterious heart attacks…

Amnesty International report’s The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup, unpicks complex contractual chains and reveals widespread and routine abuse of migrant workers. It has been revealed that some Nepalese men have not been paid for months and have had their salaries retained to stop them running away. Employers are also accused of routinely confiscating passports and refusing to issue ID cards, reducing their migrant workforce to the status of illegal aliens. Even more shocking, some labourers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat. With such brutal conditions, 30 Nepalese workers sought refuge at their embassy in Doha. These revelations are all the more outrageous when one realises that it is one of the richest nations of the world literally exploiting one of the poorest, in the name of a popular and entertaining sporting tournament. An international tournament that is backed up and organised by the FIFA whose motto is ironically “For the Game. For the World.

Likewise, with the aim of dragging down the price of clothing in Europe, countless garment-workers in Cambodia, Bangladesh and other developing countries work long hours in sweatshop factories to produce the clothes we wear in the West. Fast-fashion brands is the merchandising phenomenon that has built up steam over the past 15 years and now dominates our wardrobes and high streets. Last year, three Norwegian fashion bloggers participated in a month-long reality show in a sweatshop factory in Cambodia, to denounce human rights violations. While seated at their station in the workroom, one of them said “you just sit here and sew the same seam over and over and over again, just as you finish one, a new one arrives”. The show has revealed, the industrys workers toil six days a week and make just 100 USD a month which is barely enough to cover their basic expenses. Additionally they face unsafe working conditions, which have led to mass fainting and deaths in building collapses. The tragic collapse of Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka in Bangladesh in April 2013 is still in everybody’s mind. On this day, the eight-story building — where companies such as Primark and Mango had suppliers — collapsed resulting in the death of 1,127 people and 2,515 injured. Although there were warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before, the workers were ordered to return to work the following day and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour. Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of clothing after China and this event is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. This disaster shows how hard it is to claim that your products are “ethically sourced”. Indeed should a company check the supplier of its supplier’s supplier?

The events in Qatar, Cambodia and Bangladesh all raise questions about corporate social responsibility across global supply chains but also about ethics. What is the real value of modernising the infrastructures of a country to host a World Cup, if it is achieved through archaic forms of exploitation of a migrant workforce? In the same way, how could a consumer be happily willing to buy a 10€ T-shirt when it has been cut, sewn and trimmed by a 12 year-old child in a Cambodian overcrowded sweatshop? To address theses issues, companies have to perform more comprehensive audits of products and suppliers, and supplier auditing needs to go beyond direct relationships with first-tier suppliers.

Yet although forced labour, child labour and slavery are now globally recognised as serious crimes, they are rarely if ever punished. Globally, there is a crucial need for clearer laws, rigorous enforcement, and greater judicial and public awareness about why these often subtle forms of exploitation can amount to severe criminal offences. Two challenges lie ahead: ensure vigorous law enforcement against the worst cases of exploitation, and build consensus for a law and policy framework that stops unscrupulous people making unfair profits at the expense of the most vulnerable. If this fails, modern slavery will surly be an increasing feature of global labour markets.

Ted Planto
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