JLP Responsible Sourcing Part III: Forced Labour

In our last post, we discussed child labour and the issues you need to be concerned about, corresponding to section B of the report.

In today’s post, we cover section C of The John Lewis Partnership‘s Responsible Sourcing Supplier Workbook which tackles the issue of forced labour. Something for my fellow Canadians to reflect on while they celebrate Canada day today and something for my colleagues south of the border to reflect on while they celebrate Independence Day on Wednesday (July 4, 2007).

Forced labor refers to any work carried out under threat of penalty, which means that workers do not have a free and unencumbered choice when it comes to the work that they perform. There are many kinds of forced labour, and you need to be familiar with all of them in order to recognize whether or not any forced labor is taking place in your organization or that of your supplier organizations.

  • Forced Overtime

    At a basic level, forced labor includes the situation where workers are not given a choice about whether or not they work overtime.

  • Penalty-based Employment

    This happens when a production site required workers to pay a deposit when they enter the workforce and does not allow them to retrieve the deposit unless they work at the production site for a minimum length of time, when original ID papers are withheld from the employee, when employees are paid in tokens which can only be used to buy goods and services from the employer, or when threats and violence are used. This practice is common in many Asian countries, including China where it is illegal.

  • Bonded Labour

    This occurs when a person is forced to work, for minimal or no wage, to pay off a debt the worker or his or her family allegedly owes the employer. This includes workers who have been trafficked to a country to pay off their ‘travel’ debt.

  • Involuntary Prison Labour

    In some countries, prisoners may be forced to work against their will without wages in poor working conditions.

Forced labour is a serious issue not only because it can trigger a serious backlash in the press if they find out it is occurring at your plant, but also because:

  • the ILO estimates the number of victims of forced labour globally at approximately 12.3 million
  • it occurs regularly in Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and in sub-Saharan Africa
  • roughly two-thirds of total forced labour in Asia and the Pacific is due to economic exploitation
  • children in forced and bonded labour represent two-thirds of children in the worst forms of child labour, conservatively estimated at 5.7 million children worldwide

This means that, as an employer, you need to insure that :

  • workers are free to leave your site after their shift ends
  • your workers must have the freedom to leave without penalty with reasonable notice, which should be consistent with local laws, stated in contracts, and communicated effectively to workers
  • overtime is voluntary
  • deposits are immediately returned to workers after a minimum period of time, and immediately upon termination of employment (and they should sign to show they received the deposit)
  • if original ID papers are required for employment, only copies should be retained by management and the originals immediately returned after verification of authenticity
  • if loans are made to workers, the terms are clearly documented in the worker’s language, the loan does not tie the worker to your employment, the repayment terms are clearly documented and a system is in place for early repayment or reassignment to a new employer, the repayment amounts are reasonable in proportion to the workers’ total wage, and the worker clearly understands all of the terms of the loan before it is made in order to prevent bonded labour situations
  • you only use prison labor where the prisoners work in safe and hygienic environments, where they are compensated for their work, and where they have a choice
  • your supply chain is transparent with respect to labor as extreme forms of forced labour are most likely to occur in subcontracted production or in component suppliers

Many suppliers use weaker forms of forced labor, such as deposits and withholding of ID papers, as a tactic to combat very high turnover rates. This happens a lot in countries deemed Low Cost Countries, since the rapid influx of first world capital trying to take advantage of lower labor costs creates a shortage of skilled workers. This can often be avoided by educating suppliers that incentives and bonuses for fixed terms of service offer a much better retention scheme and by insuring that you pay a fair price for the product they produce (to make sure the supplier can afford to pay fair wages and bonuses to its staff).

In our next post, we’ll tackle the third major issue addressed by the workbook, that of health, safety, and hygiene. (You can access all of the posts in the series (to-date) by selecting the JLP category at any time.)