Asian businesses push to end modern slavery for migrant workers

Participants of the Bali Process, a forum for improving employment conditions in Asia, propose ideas that, if enacted, could put a dent in modern day slavery within the region.

Soe ZeyaTun/Reuters/File
Abdhulami (c.), a victim of human trafficking in Myanmar, identifies smugglers while sitting in a refugee camp near Sittwe, Myanmar, on May 27, 2015.

Asia Pacific business leaders are working on recommendations to protect migrant workers from modern day slavery and to ensure companies' supply sources are free from such unethical employment, according to Australia's ambassador for people smuggling and human trafficking.

One idea might be to create a regional website that rates employment recruiters – something already being done in Vietnam, Andrew Goledzinowski said. Another idea could be to designate a common telephone number as a regional hotline, similar to what the sportswear company Adidas provides to its factory workers in China and elsewhere.

Mr. Goledzinowski suggested the ideas at a forum of officials and business leaders from 45 Indo-Pacific countries and territories known as the Bali Process that also aims at ensuring companies' supply of materials are not tainted by unethical employment.

Participants agreed at the meeting in Perth, Australia, to submit specific recommendations to governments next year.

"We are hoping they will come up with the recommendations for how to better manage the recruitment of migrant workers and the protection of migrant workers" he said in an interview Wednesday. He said the measures also aim "to manage supply chain transparency so that businesses are not just responsible for what happens in their business, but also who they buy from."

Migrant workers often end up dealing with recruiters they do not know, being charged high fees, and having their passports taken when they reach their destination, Goledzinowski said.

"And very quickly you are trafficked, in fact, you are in debt bondage," he said, expressing hope that business leaders agree that "migrant workers should not have to pay for their own recruitment."

In the Monitor's 2015 report on labor trafficking, Stephanie Hanes highlights the challenges companies face when attempting to eradicate modern day slavery from supply chains.

Although some US companies have taken steps to regulate their own supply chains, even the most committed businesses run into difficulties. In 2011, for instance, executives at the clothing company Patagonia discovered that some of their suppliers in Taiwan were using disreputable labor brokers. These brokers were bringing in what the company suspected was forced labor, and charging those factory workers fees that took almost two years to pay off.

“Paying that kind of money for a factory job is an almost impossible burden for workers already struggling to make a living,” company officials said later. “It creates a form of indentured servitude that could also qualify, less politely, as modern-day slavery.”

Patagonia has since developed a host of stronger migrant worker standards, which it is attempting to enforce throughout its supply chain. But Patagonia is a successful company with a brand emphasis on doing good. Those businesses without a similar corporate desire for a trafficking-free supply chain can easily claim ignorance, advocates say. And ultimately, advocates point out, there is a lot of incentive – on the part of government, businesses, and consumers – to not look too closely.

In 2012, according to the Migration Policy Institute, workers sent some $401 billion in remittances back to their developing countries. In wealthy countries, consumers continue to demand more, cheaper products and services. And migrants, whether in the US or elsewhere, are increasingly willing to risk their lives to earn wages lower than what Americans and others from wealthy countries will accept."

The recommendations [to governments] will cover employment ethics, transparency standards, and safeguards for victims and whistle-blowers. Some will be classed as minimum standards, and some as more ambitious targets.

"There's a lot that can be done which actually is quite easy but it only works if everyone does it," Goledzinowski said.

The Bali Process started in 2002 and includes representatives from the US, China, India, Japan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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