Worker organising can counter labour abuse in the Global South

Consumer and corporate-focused approaches to labour exploitation and trafficking are ineffective.

Myanmar workers
Workers assemble products at a factory owned by Yakeda Outdoor Travel Products Co in Yangon, Myanmar on June 11, 2019 [Reuters/Ann Wang]

Since 2010, the world has witnessed a marked shift in efforts to combat labour exploitation. As consumers have become more aware of labour abuses, international companies have been forced to scrutinise labour practices not only at their offices and sales outlets but also at the various factories involved in manufacturing their products.

In accordance with laws like the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act and 2010 California Supply Chain Transparency Act, multinational retailers like Walmart, and global brands like ZaraGapH & M and C & A have recently publicised modern slavery statements expressing a commitment to addressing forced labour.

Such laws focus on increasing the transparency of the production process, which involves numerous levels of sub-contracting, often across continents  a pervasive practice that ensures low manufacturing costs. To comply with new regulations, many companies have established new corporate divisions for responsible sourcing and global sustainability, promising to investigate, audit, monitor, educate, and reduce the incidence of forced labour and human trafficking in the different factories they engage with.

But there is a problem. While new laws require businesses to disclose their efforts to address forced labour in their supply chains, they have limited provisions for compliance and enforcement. Furthermore, this model neglects large parts of the global workforce, such as labourers producing goods for the Global South, or service and care sector workers who are not considered members of global commodity chains.

Consumer boycotts, which focuon global supply chains, are also problematic. They have caused some companies to suddenly withdraw their manufacturing contracts with certain factories, or in certain countries altogether, leaving workers to face a barren employment landscape.

Take Myanmar as an example; a pivotal country of origin for migrant workers in the manufacturing sector both domestically and abroad. Global North brands have trained factories employing Myanmar workers about responsible business practices and conducted audits to detect labour abuse, yet workers still have limited ways of seeking remediation when their rights are violated.

Only workers whose conditions are highlighted by their proximity to privileged consumer markets are understood by such approaches as exploited labourers who deserve attention, and the power remains within the hands of these few actors to stop the abuse.

In Myanmar, the EU is considering removing trade preferences in light of human rights abuses in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states and the treatment of Rohingya refugees, which could have the collateral effect of loss of employment for hundreds of thousands of migrant women working in the garment industry.

These supply chain approaches, while ineffective in resolving the roots of labour exploitation, have become so ubiquitous that they have shifted global attention to focus almost exclusively on the abuse that happens in export-oriented sectors. This may cause concerned Global North citizens, organisations and policymakers to overlook the systemic exploitation that occurs among service sector workers – domestic workers and sex workers, in particular, are often left behind.

These are industries in need of consideration in all approaches to end forced labour because they employ mostly women who face global inequality, poverty, lack of labour protection and criminalisation during migration and work.

Domestic workers, in particular, face some of the greatest risks of coercion and exploitation due to the isolation of their workplaces, and historic devaluing of care work. For migrant domestic workers from Myanmar, the experience of worker abuse has been so grave that the government banned overseas migration for domestic work in 2014, a restriction that only further entrenched vulnerabilities for migrant workers, including lack of legal protection and access to social services.

A critical deficiency of supply chain approaches is that they highlight corporate intentions while obscuring the importance of building worker power to counteract these forces.

Worker-led efforts, rather than corporate or consumer-led ones, shift the focus to the ideas, needs and collective action of the workers themselves. Establishing more equitable channels of negotiation between workers and employers – including the global brands who buy from them – would grant a voice to workers to define the most pressing problems and the most appropriate solutions.

Worker organising, both through and alongside trade unions, is pivotal to achieving freedom of association and collective bargaining. Worker organising strategies reframe relationships of power and authority and lessen the risk of exploitation. Their successes show that the problems that exist within a supply chain, especially with regards to exploitation and accountability, would be best addressed if we turn more of the power over to workers instead of governments, corporations and consumers.

recent policy report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Global Labor Justice also highlighted the importance of a global gender-based violence approach to monitoring labour abuse in global supply chains. Citing pervasive sexual harassment, gender-based violence and coercion against factory workers in WalmartH & M, and Gap‘s global supply chains, their analysis illustrates how patriarchal management regimes subject women to systematic exploitation. The report points to an important gap between the goals of corporate transparency and their realities for workers in the Global South.

The tendency to exclude worker organising as an approach to combat exploitation is not for a lack of effective models. This past autumn, thousands of Myanmar garment workers throughout the country went on strike at nearly a dozen factories demanding provisions for leave, holidays and overtime pay as stipulated by Myanmar’s labour laws. Many of these labour struggles are ongoing as factories have been reluctant to meet worker demands. In September, a thousand workers participated in a sit-in organised at a Chinese-owned factory that produced clothing for Zara and Holly & Whyte. The strike ended when employers agreed to strikersdemands. However, seven labour activists still face charges from the government for unlawful assembly.

In another case, the International Labour Organization and Three Good Spoons, a social enterprise, have delivered a series of workshops that train Myanmar domestic workers in skills ranging from cooking, cleaning, and operating household equipment, to self-defence and legal awareness. By emphasising that domestic work is skilled work, the training has cultivated an informal network for domestic worker-led advocacy and empowerment.

Global supply chain initiatives that fail to include worker-led empowerment and organising are inevitably limited in their scope and ability to achieve permanent and comprehensive solutions to the widespread scourge of labour coercion and abuse. Prioritising investment in worker capacity to organise collectively to combat exploitation is critical to securing social and economic justice that leaves no one behind.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.