Slavery. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Slavery. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

New Haven — Major corporations which claim to be committed to tackling the threat of forced labour often tell “fairytales” that belie workplace exploitation and shirk responsibility for cleaning up their supply chains, academics and activists told a conference.

From tea and chocolate makers to hotels, many companies sign up to antislavery certification schemes or codes of conduct at the expense of taking direct action to engage with their workers and stamp out abuse, experts said at Yale University.

Such initiatives are often substandard and fail to combat worker exploitation despite being widely hailed by the private sector, said Genevieve LeBaron, a politics professor and antislavery academic at Britain’s Sheffield University.

A study by LeBaron, revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in May, found some Indian tea plantations stamped slavery-free by groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance were abusing and underpaying workers.

“The stories that companies are telling us about efforts to fight forced labour in supply chains are... basically fairytales,” she told the annual conference on modern slavery.

[“Certification schemes] improve corporates’ reputations and give the impression that the problem of forced labour in supply chains is slowly disappearing — so that we don’t push for the alternatives that would challenge the status quo,” LeBaron said.

Workers should be paid the so-called living wage, have job security and the power to exert their labour rights, she added.

About 25-million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, from farms to factories, the UN says.

As the world strives to meet a UN global goal of ending the $150bn- a-year crime by 2030, consumers worldwide are increasingly demanding to know whether the products they buy — ranging from cosmetics to clothes — are free of forced labour.

Yet antislavery certification schemes, accolades and awards are hardly reliable indicators for the public when choosing between companies, according to Neha Mira, a trafficking expert with the US-based workers’ rights charity Solidarity Center.

“The same time as you’re giving a gold star to a company, they’re firing workers for trying to organise in the workplace ... or women for getting pregnant at work,” she said.

However, such initiatives can play a role in making businesses more transparent and be used to hold them to account, said Luis deBaca, a US lawyer and former ambassador who led the government’s antitrafficking efforts under former president Barack Obama.

“For some companies, signing code of conducts might just be virtue signalling,” he told the conference. “But we can use them to pressure them and ask them to start signalling such virtues.”

Two separate studies published  last week found that pressure by big brands on suppliers to deliver more quickly and cheaply fuels labour abuses in factories, and that companies often fail to cover growing costs in their supply chains.

Thomson Reuters Foundation