Written by Emily Dafter
The misunderstandings about modern slavery are inherently tied to our lack of understanding about vulnerability, coercion, and control.
Within the consumer goods and food industries, en masse, professionals and laypeople alike maintain the assumption that slaves are in chains or bound by physical restraints. This enables a very common claim that I have heard from many executives, procurers, and business owners:
“I visit our sites- I know there’s no slaves.”
Aside from the obvious – that your supply chain almost never ends at that site, factory, or facility – the data shows us that slavery is not always visibly identifiable or even confronting to see.
Industry is often slow to catch up to understand social psychology and how it applies to labour rights and human rights in supply chains – and in this case understandings of coercion should impact how we should be assessing and addressing modern slavery.
With numbers of modern slavery victims estimated at 40 million, including 25 million in forced labour, most of which are women – the reality seems quite removed from the claims and observations made in the industry of “no slaves” in almost everyone’s factories.
Modern slavery can be far better understood through an understanding of both coercion and vulnerability. Let’s use our imaginations to ponder this one; pop on your lateral thinking caps and come along for the ride. Imagine:
You’re a 15-year-old worker, in your first job packing on a production line. You’re happy to be earning money and you’re working through your probation period. Your boss asks you to do some over-time work into the evening, even though you have plans that evening (and you know night work is not legally permitted for young workers).
What do you do?
It seems easy enough to say no. But to understand coercion and vulnerability let’s add in some changes to the context:
- You’re working in Thailand, but are from Myanmar, and you don’t know what rights you have or what the government would assist you or defend you in if anything were to go wrong.
- Thai is your second language, and you only know it to a basic level.
- You’ve seen your boss get verbally violent towards other workers and have genuine concern that this was not a one-off.
- You know there are job shortages at the moment, so if you quit you may not find another job.
- Your family back in Myanmar desperately need financial help at the moment, if you lose this job they could potentially lose their home.
- Your passport is currently held by the manager for safe keeping, but you have been told that it may be kept during your probation period.
Do you still feel you can, or should, say no?
Despite the severity of some of these examples, it should be obvious here how different vulnerabilities add up to a situation where you could imagine it being harder to walk away or say no to the offer (or demand) of extra work. Things aren’t quite so clear cut.
Coercion accounts for manipulation on part of the employer or supervisor, and vulnerability lies in the context or life of the worker. Coercion on the part of an employer may also never be verbally enacted, it may occur as “unspoken rules” or intimidation. Both factors increase the likelihood of exploitation and therefore modern slavery. Other factors like gender, cultural expectations, employment arrangements, immigration status, education and skill level, worker representation, geographic isolation and the stability of a country greatly impact on the vulnerability of any worker.
Coercion has been defined by US TVPRA trafficking legislation as “threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person, psychological manipulation, document confiscation, and shame and fear-inducing threats to share information or pictures with others or report to authorities.” We know that modern slavery exists on a spectrum of exploitative practices, including some of those listed in the TVPRA definition of coercion.
When you look at how easy it is for a worker to be exploited through coercion and then add in the gamut of vulnerabilities in many contexts, there is no clear ‘line’ that can be drawn to understand where slavery starts and ends.
When we continue to assert that slavery looks like physical control and not coercion, we actively disempower the coerced worker.
The coerced worker may think “at least I have a day off and am able to leave the facility” or “at least my boss does not physically harm us” whilst still being under a coercive form of control.
Now if you were to do a walk-through tour of a site or factory- would you be able to accurately identify worker vulnerabilities like visa status? Or would you be able to see if management was actively coercing workers? Probably not.
There are definitely still contexts where slavery is under conditions of obvious physical coercion – see the movie buoyancy linked below for an example. By and large however, to address the gravest human rights abuses, we need to maintain a strong level of empathy, social and emotional insight to understand how the cocktail of vulnerability and coercion combine to form unjust practices that are modern slavery.
Without investigation or understanding the nuances of control, you could absolutely tour your factory, look these people in the eye and say, “I don’t see any chains.” The 40 million people subjected to slavery will remain that way if businesses continue to expect modern slavery to identify itself by physical or obvious means.
We’ve gathered some resources below on the topics of modern slavery indicators, coercion, influence and vulnerability. If you’re curious about how this may affect your business, or how you can work to understand the worker vulnerabilities in your supply chain, please get in touch.
- Hidden Brain NPR – On how we often fail to acknowledge the power we have over others.
- Hidden Brain NPR – To understand how we even lack empathy for our past selves when we experience pain or make bad decisions.
Articles & Research:
- How the Walk Free Foundation calculated vulnerability for the Global Slavery Index https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/methodology/vulnerability/
- The US TVPRA information on trafficking, force, fraud, and coercion: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/otip/fact-sheet/resource/fshumantrafficking
Movies & documentaries