Forced Labor in the Global Economy

When the average Westerner thinks about forced labor today, they possibly first think of young Nepalese women trafficked into brothels in India or child slavery in Sudan. What they don't know is that this human rights atrocity is going on in their own backyard - literally.

The International Labour Organization released a report that says there are over 12 million persons on all six continents who are involved in some form of forced labor. This is no longer just a problem in the developing world. Nearly 360,000 of those 12 million have been trafficked through Western Europe and the United States, which in turn brings in $15 billions of profit to the industrialized world.

Many would conclude that globalization in the ever-competitive global economy is partially to blame for creating a need for high supply and demand at whatever cost. At the 2005 International Symposium on Forced Labor and the Global Economy at MIT last Saturday, panelists discussed that it is up to the world's governments and consumers to make private enterprise responsible for setting strict guidelines for worker's rights.

Roger Plant, Head of the Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labor at the International Labour Organization, said that people living in the poorest countries are deceived into believing that better opportunities are available in Western countries. When they move to these countries they realized that things are not the way they were advertised. The migrant is not able to go home because of all the debt incurred with getting a visa, housing and travel expenses. The forced laborer also can not leave the situation until the debt or 'paper bondage' is paid off, which can take many years. "What we are seeing here is terrible deception," said Plant. It is not always physical violence. It is deception of condition; it is deception of contracts. These are the face of modern day slavery."

Recent revelations that 300 black African boys went missing in London is a good example of the level of this crisis today. Many of the boyes are believed to have been forced into horrible working conditions.

In the southern part of the United States there is a cycle of agricultural forced labor with thousands of Mexicans who come across the border to pick grapes or tomatoes. Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund said that these migrant workers feel trapped because they know they are illegal and have no rights. "You see this cycle of imprisonment,' said Collingsworth. "Often you see that the workers could run away, but they won't because they are worried about what will happen to their brother or sisiter who is still working at the factory. These are subtle ways to keep them imprisoned, but once you move them they are less likely to assert their rights."

Harvard Business School professor Regina Abrami said that this fear is seen everywhere, from the worker to the manager to even the CEO. "There is almost a climate of fear that reaches across the entire supply chain," said Abrami. "It includes the workers themselves who are afraid to say anything. It includes corporations who are afraid that if they do anything that it will affect the market. It includes suppliers who meet all the demands they will be less competitive. And quite frankly it also includes governments who particularly under more globalized conditions are terrified that if they try to be this haven for worker's rights that is active against forced labor, they will suffer and be less competitive in the market. And as the developing world becomes more dependent on foreign and direct investment, they particularly feel more vulnurable."

Corporate giants Walmart and Nike have been struggling with this fear issue. However, now is the time to put people first, not money. Consumers can only make a difference by demanding their politicians to create international laws that makes forced labor illegal and business fair and ethical for companies. Thomas Kochan, professor of management at MIT's Sloan School of Management, also says that consumers need to get educated about the issues and start asking questions about who is making the products, forcing companies to put labels on products certifiying that they weren't make under forced labor conditions. "Lets provide leadership in the developed world so that the consumer side takes responsibility for making sure that these conditions are eradicated."


Post a Comment

<< Home