Where does forced labor come from? What are the root causes? Often this is traced back to two explanations: poverty and globalization, but how exactly do they perpetuate “endemic labor exploitation” in global supply chains?
This week Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, part of Open Democracy, launched a 12-part report that breaks down the root causes of forced labor and what we can do about them. The report aims to “provide policymakers, journalists, scholars and activists with a road map for understanding the political economy of forced labour in today’s “global value chain (GVC) world.”
This report is organised around a metaphor – the classical economic metaphor of ‘supply and demand’. Within mainstream economic theory, the price of any particular good is not determined by the individuals who buy and sell it. Instead, the price results from a system-wide balance between how much of it is available in the world (supply), how many people want it, and how badly (demand). The price goes up as supply decreases or as demand increases, and down if the opposite applies.
This is a useful way of thinking about forced labour. Rather than a simple consequence of greed or the moral shortcomings of individuals, forced labour in global supply chains is a structural phenomenon that results when predictable, system-wide dynamics intersect to create a supply of highly exploitable workers and a business demand for their labour.
On the “supply side,” researchers identify four key factors that contribute to vulnerability among workers: Poverty, Identity and Discrimination, Limited Labor Protections, and Restrictive Mobility Regimes. On the “demand side,” or factors that “create pressure within the market for highly exploitable forms of labor,” are Concentrated Corporate Power and Ownership, Outsourcing, Irresponsible Sourcing Practices, and Governance Gaps.
The research is grounded in several academic disciplines and draws on industry-specific cases, ethnographic investigations, and statistical studies from around the world. In sum, they paint a picture of how the global capitalist economy produces an “unjust status quo” and point out what is and what is not working to fix it.