Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of deportation to immigration authorities. The main elements of forced labour are: (a) work or service exacted from any person for which the person has not offered voluntarily and (b) under threat of penalty.

The practice of forced labour is the most common part of modern slavery. It is often found in industries with large numbers of workers and inadequate regulations such as agriculture, domestic work, construction, manufacturing and prostitution. 

Who are the victims of forced labour? While forced labour is a global phenomenon that affects all regions and industries, there are subsections of the population and sociopolitical contexts that are particularly affected.

Vulnerable and excluded groups are typically most affected.  For instance, the Dalits in India are often discriminated against and tend to suffer from forced labour. Women and girls are also more at risk compared to men and boys, while one in four of those who are in forced labour are children. These vulnerable populations tend to be hidden from the public eye and therefore receive less regulatory attention.

Migrant workers are also affected because they do not speak the local language, have few friends and remain highly reliant on their employers. While they may have more limited rights than local workers, their inability to speak the local language well further impedes their access to such rights. Thus, they remain completely beholden to their employers who may then exploit them.

Watch this YouTube vide to see the photos which ended child labour in the US


Tesco Christmas Cards: Prison Labour?

Recently, a girl from London discovered that a box of Tesco Christmas cards that she purchased had a message from a desperate prisoner in Shanghai. The note was believed to have been written by a foreign prisoner who was made to pack cards in boxes at a gulag (forced labour camp) in Shanghai. The author of the note further directed the recipient to contact the journalist, Peter Humphrey, who was previously locked up in Shanghai for nine months.

While the supermarket giant’s sale of Christmas cards raise money for charities, some are concerned about Tesco’s relationship with its Chinese suppliers and their use of forced prison labour. Tesco has responded by suspending the use of this particular factory and has launched an investigation into the alleged use of forced labour. It also reported that it has recently audited the Shanghai factory and found no evidence that it was flouting their rules about using prison labour.

However, China has denied the allegations of foreign prisoners being made to work. Meanwhile, it stated that Chinese law uses labour as a part of the punishment process: labour is seen as a means of reforming criminals into law-abiding citizens. The same law provides safeguards for prisoners to only work eight hours a day and to rest for not less than eight hours.

While investigations are ongoing, there is also mounting pressure for retail giants like Tesco and Cotton On to ensure that there are ethical labour practices across their entire supply chain. Regular audits would have to be conducted to ensure that there are no evidence of modern slavery practices.

Ferrero Rocher Chocolates: Child Labour

In another related case, human rights campaigners are lobbying against Ferrero Rocher as they claim that the hazelnuts inside the chocolates may be picked by children working in farms in Turkey. The chocolate manufacturer purchases about 30% of their hazelnuts from Turkey, where child labour is unfortunately widespread. A representative for Ferrero has acknowledged that there is a problem of child labour in Turkey’s agricultural sector and it is committed to preventing child labour along their supply chains. 

Given the complexity of the hazelnut supply chain, it is highly unlikely that this is an issue limited to Ferrero Rocher or that it can be solved merely by one company alone. All hazelnuts purchasing firms would have to band together to ensure that farmers are maintaining good agricultural and social standards, which excludes the use of exploitative labour practices.

The use of child labour is problematic for many reasons. On one hand, the children who work as agricultural harvesters do not attend school and so they lose the benefit of education. On the other hand, child labourers face dangerous working conditions such as inadequate health and safety conditions. Furthermore, due to the illegal nature of child labour, they also do not receive fair wages nor are they protected by any employment benefits should they be injured or die while they are working.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. While retailers are expected to have an ethical supply chain, i.e., that their suppliers are not using forced labour or modern slavery methods, to what extent should they be responsible for ensuring every particular labour practice across their vast supply chains?
  2. Do you ever think about how the products you use are being manufactured or whether there are any unethical labour practices being used to create the products that you use? Does this matter to you? Why or why not?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. exacted’: demand and obtain (something, especially a payment) from someone
  2. beholden’: owing thanks or having a duty to someone in return for help or a service; indebted

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. NPR: Further reporting on the case of the Tesco Christmas cards

In an interview with the BBC, Humphrey said he believes the note was written as a collective message, and he thinks he knows who penned the letter, “but I will never disclose that name.”

He described bleak conditions in the foreigners’ cellblock at the Shanghai prison. “There are 12 prisoners per cell,” he said, “and they sleep in very rusty iron bunk beds with a mattress which is not more than about one centimeter thick underneath them. In the winter it is extremely cold; there’s no heating in the building. And in the summer it’s extremely hot because there’s no air conditioning in the building.”

He noted that there has apparently been a major change since he was released from the prison in June 2015. “When I was there, manufacturing labor work was voluntary,” he recalled. “Prisoners could do that as a way to earn pennies that they need to buy daily necessities like soap and toothpaste and biscuits. What has happened in the last year or so is that work has become compulsory.”

  1. Time: How countries are trying to end modern slavery

“If you really boil it down, slavery happens because of three things. There are desperately vulnerable people who might be from a targeted group, or young, or powerless in some other way; there are violently greedy people who are prepared to make money out of other human beings; and then the third element is that these violent people think they can get away with it,” says David Westlake, CEO of International Justice Mission U.K., an organization working with victims of slavery and with law enforcement around the world to tackle the issue at its source.

Experts say that despite the advances of the Modern Slavery Act in the U.K., child victims in particular are being left behind. The Act does not include a system of guardianship for all unaccompanied children in England and Wales, and government austerity measures have reduced access to foster care and mental health services. “It’s not entirely clear who is responsible for the child. Quite often, frontline workers have not been provided with the specialist knowledge around trafficking in order to support child victims,” says Laura Durán, senior research and policy officer at Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK).

One in every four victims of modern slavery around the world are children, with women and girls disproportionately affected by forced labor. They account for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry. For children arriving in the U.K. who may have been trafficked or victims of slavery, Durán says they face additional challenges like not being believed about their age, their background and their health history.