My speech to 103rd International Labour Conference, 28 May 2014

I would like to thank this Conference for the opportunity to speak on behalf of Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

Everyone here is aware of the ILO estimates of a minimum of 21 million children and adults in forced labour and that the profits from this exploitation are estimated to be $150 billion per annum.

That is a dreadful indictment of how we conduct our business today.
We are no longer living in a 1930’s world. Today the expansion of globalisation means that the international law governing the contemporary realities of trade has become vital. Hence this Conference is the essential forum where the dark side of these new realities must be confronted, not with fine words and voluntary approaches, but with robust international law.

Unless robust action is taken to extend the rule of international law against forced labour the routine enslavement of marginalised workers will continue to be at worst facilitated and at best tolerated in the global political economy.

So, as the UN Special Rapporteurs on Slavery, Trafficking and Migration have recognised, a binding Protocol is required to ensure coherent international action. This is necessary to prevent a minority of unscrupulous businesses and corrupt political elites from systematically using forced labour to derive competitive advantage over the vast majority of honourable business executives and politicians who are striving against all odds to make a better world for their employees and their citizens.

We therefore appeal to this Conference to seek a binding Protocol with a strong Recommendation to the Convention that will require states to ensure law and practice that effectively identifies and protects victims of forced labour, giving special consideration to the particular risks faced by migrants, women and children and to ensure that the perpetrators of forced labour compensate their victims; that require states ensure their courts and law enforcement have sufficient capacity to ensure effective rule of law against forced labour so that states create a level playing field for ethical business, declaring also their expectations of business action to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains and how businesses should disclose their efforts towards these ends; that requires states and employers to promote freedom of association and collective bargaining for all workers; and that encourages states to incorporate into their aid, trade and diplomacy measures to reduce the risk of forced labour.

I am sure that everyone in this room is abhorred by the idea of forced labour and slavery. However that is not enough. This Conference has the power to do something directly about its realities. It is the duty of everyone here to demonstrate that they are as opposed to the idea of slavery in practice as they are in principle. That means a binding protocol and strong recommendation are necessary. If this Conference fails in that task then the judgement of history and of conscience will be harsh.

2 thoughts on “My speech to 103rd International Labour Conference, 28 May 2014

  1. Dear Aidan,

    That’s a wonderful speech. While people like us (from the civil society) agree to all that you have said, the challenge that we face is how to increase accountability of most businesses that flout the laws. Two things that strike me as important are ethical business and clean supply chains. Why is it that companies that follow the strict business and supply chain protocols in their countries of origin don’t practice the same in other countries, why do they choose suppliers who don’t follow the laws of the land and how can one enforce them to follow these is one of the important things among many others that you have mentioned. Sweatshops in Bangladesh, India are a case in point.
    Could you also please write a blog on what was/were the decision form the ILC? That would be quite useful.

    Kind regards
    Sandhya Lakshmi C.
    ActionAid India

  2. Dear Sandhya

    Many thanks for your very kind words.

    I agree with you completely that a key question for our times is that of corporate legal accountability, both nationally and internationally. Its lack is one of the key reasons why businesses with good health, safety and labour policies in their home countries can have such poor practices in their international supply chains. Indeed it is one of the reasons that businesses source from countries with poor rule of law is that it is cheaper. And some governments maintain poor rule of law to give them a global competitive advantage,

    The “ethical” auditing industry is also a facilitator of this: they allow business executives and their stakeholders to delude themselves that they have clean supply chains: indeed most ethical auditors, I believe, are expected to find nothing – that is their purpose.

    I should over the next week or so be writing something more on the outcome of the ILC which I will post and tweet.

    Meantime thanks so much for the feedback. It is hugely appreciated


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