By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - World leaders should take aim at modern slavery in corporate supply chains at a global summit next year, labour rights activists said on Wednesday, calling for laws to compel companies to tackle worker exploitation in their operations.
Speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference, experts urged heads of the 53-country Commonwealth -mostly ex-British colonies home to 2.4 billion people - to focus on the issue at the biennial event to be held in Rwanda in 2020.
"If the Commonwealth took the lead (on due diligence laws) ... it would have an enormous rippling affect around the world," Phil Bloomer, head of London-based pressure group The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, told a panel.
The European Union is often seen as setting the minimum regulatory standards for businesses on human rights, according to Bloomer, who said the Commonwealth should take the lead.
"The Commonwealth could act ... as the beacon and litmus test ... but also a multiplier effect on due diligence laws."
He described Britain's world-first 2015 Modern Slavery Act - which requires large businesses to publicly outline their anti-slavery efforts - as important but "toothless", and urged major nations and the EU to hold firms to account on labour abuses.
About 25 million people are estimated to be victims of forced labour, and companies are facing rising consumer pressure to clean up their supply chains with the issue in the spotlight since the United Nations set a target of ending slavery by 2030.
Yet the world's economic model has "broken down" as the practices of large corporations and digital platforms put a rising number of workers at risk of slavery, said Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
About two billion people - more than 60% of the world's workforce - are in informal work, leaving them vulnerable to being underpaid, overworked and treated like slaves, she said.
And the rise of digital platforms from food to taxi apps where workers lack proper contracts and social protections means that key rights such as a living wage, trade unionisation and fair working conditions are under growing threat, Burrow added.
"The world's employment framework has broken down ... we need a new social contract to clean up forced labour," she said.
"THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES"
Burrow called upon businesses to do more to identify the risk of exploitation and slavery in their operations and provide workers with avenues to report abuse without fear of reprisals, and urged governments to ensure labour rights are respected.
She pointed to Qatar - which relies on about 2 million migrant workers for the bulk of its workforce - as a positive example of how pressure from labour rights groups over what they described as modern slavery could lead to broad labour reforms.
Doha last month announced a new minimum wage law and steps to end the "kafala" sponsorship system, which binds workers to one employer and has been criticised as abusive.
Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, said the deaths of 1,135 garment workers in the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse had been a turning point, but that brands were still failing to be responsible for their supply chains.
The global outlook for workers' rights is concerning, Burrow said, citing recent ITUC research that showed workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72% of countries and found a spike in the number of nations blocking trade unionisation.
"For workers, the struggle continues for fundamental rights, a minimum living wage, the right to bargain collectively, and the guarantee of a safe workplace," she said.
"Every business ... and government must be held to account." (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)