Speech to the European Economic and Social Committee, Brussels, 11 Mar 2014

First of all many thanks for the opportunity to speak here.

We are meeting here, as everyone is aware, as the ILO are engaged in a process of standard setting in relation to ILO 29, the 1930 forced labour convention. This is an important process because, as many of the interventions here have indicated, forced labour has moved on considerably since that convention was first drafted.

It is also appropriate that we meet here at the European Economic and Social Council because, as Mrs Myria Vassiliadou, the EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, remarks indicated there is much that that this process can and should learn from the EU, and most particularly from the EU anti-trafficking directive, on the struggle against forced labour.

I would like in particular to highlight the strong emphasis in the Directive on the reduction of “demand that fosters all forms of exploitation” and the Directive encouragement to Member States to enact “measures to reduce the risk of people becoming victims of trafficking in human beings.”

In contemporary Europe the “legal persons”, to use the language of the Directive, most responsible for the demand for trafficked people are some of our transnational businesses.

For example as we speak today European clothes retailers are transacting deals with clothing manufacturers in southern India where the use of the forced labour of girls and young women is routinized. Indeed many of these enslaved young women will be spinning into thread cotton that has been gathered by forced labour and child slavery in Uzbekistan while, for all intents and purposes, the EU stands idly by while these abuses go on on our doorstep. Ongoing research by Anti-Slavery also finds that forced labour of vulnerable migrants in SE Asia is a huge and systematic feature of the export orientated industries of Thailand many of which find lucrative markets in Europe perhaps most notoriously the fisheries that keep us supplied with prawns.

If history shows us one thing it is that voluntary measures are woefully inadequate as a means to address systemic problems. The most popular voluntary measure of the moment is that of social or ethical auditing. Frankly we should recognise that this approach has not brought any notable change to labour rights abuses in supply chains. Rather it is used as a fig leaf by companies to indicate social concern without involving any of those companies in the necessary scale of appropriate social and political action to end the problems. Indeed in many instances the purpose of ethical auditing is to find nothing: repeatedly we see the failings of ethical auditing exposed in Bangladesh by lethal fires which have previously been given clean bills of ethical health.

Hence a binding Protocol to ILO 29 is essential. The EU directive is an excellent example of an effort to obtain pan-European systematic response. Yet as Mrs Vassiliadou’s remarks indicated also the implementation of the Directive by member states still leaves much to be desired – I would highlight in particular the failures of member states to introduce extraterritorial measures to hold to account their “legal persons”, their businesses, who recklessly endanger vulnerable workers to forced labour in their supply chains.

One of the reasons for the failure of member states to fully implement the EU directive is because of the fragmentary nature of the government of many member states: for example in the UK it is the Home Office which has primacy on the EU directive, but some of the measures that the Directive advocates do not fall within the remit of that ministry, but rather should be undertaken by the aid and trade ministries.

Replication of key measures from the EU Directive in a binding Protocol to the forced labour convention, particularly those related to the supply chains of “legal persons”, would help address this question of fragmentation by requiring other currently negligent ministries to pay attention to their obligations in the struggle against forced labour internationally. It would also promote good practice more internationally, which is also in Europe’s interest by extending rule of international law to prevent other regions of the world from deriving unfair competitive advantage from the enslavement of vulnerable workers.

Forced labour and the trafficking of human beings requires an international response. Too many countries, including member states of the EU, feel that their domestic law will provide sufficient response to the challenges of forced labour. Such an attitude shows little more than a profound lack of understanding of the realities of forced labour and trafficking in a globalising political economy. But this complacent attitude is prevalent in many government ministries across Europe and it must be challenged.

The EU Directive rightly emphasises the gendered aspects of human trafficking. There are additional factors that render people vulnerable to trafficking for different forms of enslavement. These include prejudice against caste, ethnicity or age, vulnerability through poverty, relative physical weakness or limited access to education, failures in the rule of law as a result of limited resources, corruption or both, and failure of governments to protect and support their citizens at home or abroad.

In citing this list I do not want to make the struggle to prevent human trafficking sound as if it is an unwinnable one. Each one of these problems was created by human beings and like all human constructions they can be changed by human action.

Simply put we can begin to address the challenge of preventing human trafficking by aligning justice policy with aid, trade and diplomacy. Currently national policies across Europe and the rest of the world march to their own tunes with little consideration of how they may contribute to the reduction of trafficking.

Trade policy is a particularly important example of this. As I mentioned the cotton harvest of our trading partner Uzbekistan is routinely gathered through forced labour and child slavery. This is a dreadful indictment of EU trade policy. Increased challenges from Europe as a whole and from Member States on the sufficiency of the law and policy of trading partners in protecting their own citizens from forced labour abuses should also be an important component of trade diplomacy.

Aid policy is also an area where there is surprisingly little consideration on how to reduce the supply of vulnerable workers to traffickers. Increased focus of aid policies on communities vulnerable to forced labour and trafficking would, quite simply, reduce trafficking. For example increased attention on education, including business and vocational education, for low-caste, “Dalit”, girls in South Asia would remove considerable risks of trafficking from their lives. Increasingly our private and governmental aid agencies should be asked to consider how their work contributes to the prevention of trafficking: There needs to be a wider engagement by these organisations with developing solutions to these problems if there is ever to be an optimal response by human society to this human rights abuse.

As an aside I feel strongly that there will never be a solution to poverty until there is an end to slavery and so this should be made an explicit Development Goal.

I hope all of you here will recognise that that none of the tripartite parties responsibilities end at the borders of national territory. Businesses have responsibilities in their global supply chains. Unions also have interests, for example in ensuring decent work in those same supply chains. And governments responsibilities for their citizens do not end at national borders.

So I hope you will support the idea that a new binding instrument should recognise the realities that many of the risks of forced labour in the contemporary world emerge from the gaps in national practice and international rule of law in the globalising economy.  If a new instrument can provide clear direction on how to respond to these risks, for example in the ways I have just described, then it will be well worth the effort.

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