Africa: Interview-Failure to Tackle Worker Abuse Breeds Modern Slavery, UN Expert Warns

London — Businesses are judged only on their efforts to curb extreme forms of labour exploitation, leaving more common abuses unchecked

A failure to hold companies to account for lesser labour abuses from late wage payments to excessive overtime creates a breeding ground for the worst forms of modern slavery to thrive, the top United Nations expert on human trafficking said.

Businesses are judged only on their efforts to curb extreme forms of labour exploitation, leaving more common abuses unchecked and likely to lead to even poorer working conditions, according to U.N. special rapporteur Maria Grazia Giammarinaro.

Minor labour abuses are so widespread that workers often do not realise they are being exploited, or are reluctant to speak out for fear of backlash - from being fired to deported in the case of undocumented migrants - the Italian judge said.

"Exploitation, and therefore trafficking, begins with the enabling of a breeding ground for the disregard of fundamental labour rights," she said in a report presented to the U.N. last week, in which she referred to a "continuum of exploitation".

To identify the worst forms of labour abuse in global supply chains, addressing broader areas of exploitation is essential, Giammarinaro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

Yet the traditional law enforcement approach is ineffective, she said, calling for workers to be able to report abuses using other avenues and supported to obtain compensation if exploited.

"The identified cases are very few," she said. "We have to explore further different avenues to make trafficking cases emerge. I think trafficking should seen by governments not as criminal issue, primarily, but as a social issue."

"But we are not there," Giammarinaro added. "Not at all."

Nearly 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labour, while about 25,000 human trafficking cases were recorded globally in 2016 - marking a 13-year-high - according to the latest available data from two U.N. agencies.

The U.N. expert pointed to laws in Britain and Australia requiring companies to report their anti-slavery efforts, but said there were concerns about firms focusing on extreme forms of exploitation instead of issues such as trade unionisation.

The number of informal workers globally is set to swell as low-skilled labourers lose out to automation and others take short-term jobs offered through digital platforms, say labour activists who warn of the increased risk of modern slavery.

Two billion people - more than 60% of the world's workers - are in informal employment, where they are not covered by formal arrangements, such as a contract, or lack protections including sick pay, U.N. International Labour Organization data shows.

"We have to admit that (exploitation) is embedded in our economic systems," Giammarinaro said. "This is something that's changed, the perception about trafficking and forced labour."

"They were perceived as marginal ... mostly linked with criminal activity," she added. "It is actually a sort of parallel labour market which exists everywhere."

(Reporting by Rosa Furneaux, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Ros Russell. 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)

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