Tour de France cyclists riding on backs of migrants in debt bondage

Are Tour de France cyclists riding on the backs of migrants in debt bondage?

  • Published on
    June 27, 2024
  • Category:
    Debt Bondage, Forced Labor
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Doping scandals have tarnished the image of the Tour de France in recent years. But new research also shows that cyclists may be riding to victory on bikes built by workers under debt bondage or forced labor. According to Le Monde diplomatique, research over the past year focused on the two world bike manufacturing hubs, Malaysia and Taiwan. This research uncovered disturbing accounts of working conditions and hiring practices at some of the biggest players in the global bicycle industry.

Massive loans lead to modern slavery

 Over the last century, due to a steep rise in production costs, bike industries in the U.S. and Europe dried up and Taiwan and Malaysia emerged as the new manufacturing hubs. Taiwan-based Giant is now the world’s biggest bike manufacturer and dominates the medium-to-high-end global market. Japanese company Shimano, located in Malaysia, has emerged as the world’s biggest bike components manufacturer. For both companies, migrant workers from poorer neighboring countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Nepal are an integral part of why bike manufacturing in these locations has become so profitable. But employees working in the plants told interviewers they paid as much as $5,700 to home-country recruiters for jobs at Giant in Taiwan or Shimano suppliers in Malaysia.

Father Peter Nguyen van Hung, a Catholic priest in Taiwan and staunch defender of migrant workers said:

“when Vietnamese migrants arrive, they have no freedom due to their debt from paying recruiters for jobs. Brokers and employers control them; they are in bondage and can’t get out,”

Those thousands of dollars of exorbitant recruitment fees that migrants must pay to secure a job usually represent over a year’s wages in their home country. That means that almost all of them start work with large high-interest debt that can take seven months to a year to pay off. Under those conditions, migrant workers cannot afford to lose their job as defaulting on the loan could mean they lose their family home or face crushing poverty or even violence when they return. That leads to workers accepting exploitative conditions they otherwise wouldn’t. In other words, they fall into debt bondage and possibly modern slavery.

Bikes built by bondage

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on modern slavery, Tomoya Obokata, and the governments of the U.S. and Taiwan identify recruitment fees as a major driver of debt bondage. In addition to recruitment fees, physical abuse, threats, unlawful salary deductions, and unpaid suspensions were reported by migrant employees in Malaysia at a Shimano supplier. Migrants interviewed in Taiwan at Giant manufacturing plants listed deportation, threats of deportation, and pay reductions for not obeying workplace or dorm rules as part of managers’ punitive treatment. Some in Taiwan also reported living in crowded, dirty dorms with up to 20 beds in narrow rooms and under a points system with zero points leading to immediate deportation. And in addition to the thousands paid as a recruitment fee, Vietnamese employees were also forced to pay a $500-1000 deposit or ‘anti-escape fee’, to be returned when they went home to Vietnam.

Obokata said:

“Foreign workers in Taiwan would be less vulnerable to coercive situations if they didn’t become indebted for obtaining their job and a visa. It is important to pay attention to migrant workers’ multiple risks of falling into debt bondage or forced labor,”

Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights specialist who has been tracking the situation in Taiwan and Malaysia, said that workers’ accounts met several ILO indicators of forced labor calling it ‘akin to modern slavery’. The U.S. and Taiwan even signed a trade agreement in 2023, stating both nations’ commitment “to eliminate the charging of recruitment fees and related costs to migrant workers”. So, what’s next?

Now that they know, what are they doing about it?

When presented with the evidence and testimonies from the investigation, Shimano quickly met with suppliers to try to resolve the issues relating to the forced labor allegations. They said, ‘The matters described in the allegations stand against what we believe in’. Those efforts seem to have had a positive effect, with a worker representative saying that Nepalese workers recruited in 2023 had been reimbursed $3,000 each and are currently working free of debt bondage risks.

In contrast, Giant didn’t acknowledge workers’ concerns, nor commit to remediation. In fact, they released a statement shifting blame for the situation to in-country recruiters. It’s time to hold Giant and its corporate customers accountable for labor exploitation and debt bondage in their supply chain.

Freedom United stands with workers and migrant rights organizations in demanding Giant and others join the growing list of multinationals who, like Shimano, are taking active steps to address forced labor risks by requiring that workers don’t have to pay to work.

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