Confronting Labor Exploitation in the Developed World
The high demand for seasonal products puts extreme pressure on suppliers worldwide, including those based in developed countries, where less consistent attention is given to possible worker exploitation.
Seasonal Pressure and Migrant Labor
The toys and gifts traditionally exchanged during the holiday season are produced year-round, often in countries where labor standards come under regular scrutiny. In developed countries, however, while not usually considered a high exploitation risk, production of seasonal items and, in particular, items with short shelf lives puts great pressure on suppliers. Temporary workers may be recruited to pluck turkeys, process vegetables for supermarkets or prepare flowers to decorate the home, not to mention harvesting and potting Christmas trees.
Ever more often, these strenuous, low-paid jobs are filled by migrants who have limited employment choices because of language issues or a lack of qualifications. In addition to facing long hours on low pay, they may be exploited by employers who misrepresent their employment rights, or by agents and labor providers who prey on their desperate need for work.
Added to this is the risk of agents in overseas countries persuading individuals to pay them fees, legal in their own country, in return for the promise of work that either fails to materialize on arrival in a foreign country or is not as it seems. For example, workers may be promised 40-hour work weeks in packing departments only to find themselves picking produce on farms with weather-dependent working hours. Others have reported significantly lower wages than expected.
EU Case Studies Detail Exploitation
Take the example of a Bulgarian couple who worked on a farm in France, picking fruit and vegetables. Hired legally, they were nonetheless seriously exploited. They were required to pick in cold, wet conditions and, despite not having warm clothes or money to buy any, were not provided with suitable work wear by their employer. After working for five months for 15–16 hours a day, they were paid for only six weeks. This is just one of the 217 case studies referenced by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in their 2015 report Severe Labor Exploitation: workers moving within or into the European Union.
Frequency of Abuse Reflected in Global Slavery Index
At the more critical end of the spectrum is the rising incidence of trafficked or bonded labor and other forms of modern slavery. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 35 million people are enslaved worldwide, mostly in manufacturing, construction and agriculture. The annual profits from forced labor and slavery are estimated by the ILO to be US$150 billion.
Legislation and Corporate Transparency and Sustainability
These issues are increasingly being addressed though legislation, with higher fines and longer sentences, and improved rates of detection. Initiatives such as Stronger Together in the UK bring together government and enforcement agencies, charities and commercial organizations to address the problem and protect vulnerable individuals who have been unwittingly caught up in it. For example, Stronger Together has developed a workshop to raise migrant workers’ awareness of exploitation in their communities and of ways to escape it. The workshop was piloted at a farm in Lincolnshire, UK, that hires up to 150 agency workers of varying nationalities in its peak Christmas and summer seasons, and has since been rolled out nationally.
In the meantime, transparency is increasingly required. Across many countries in the developed world, companies are being required to report on the action they take to reduce the risk of slavery in their supply chains. While these requirements cover only reporting, not specific action to be taken, it is hoped that this development will encourage companies to work together to make a positive impact in the arena of exploitation and forced labor.
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