4.3 Businesses and forced labour
Many businesses source or manufacture their produce using forced labour. This is particularly common among some of the largest and most popular high-street brands. These issues are particularly notorious in (although, by no means limited to) fabric and garment manufacture in India, the cotton trade in Uzbekistan and the cocoa trade in West Africa.
Some big businesses open factories in states where they operate using exploitative or forced labour in the production of merchandise. Very often these people work long hours, in difficult (if not inhumane) conditions and for little or virtually no payment. It is not uncommon to employ children to carry out some work, especially in the cheap production of clothes.
In other cases, forced labour can be even perpetuated by the state itself. In this case, the state uses forced labour to obtain the product and then enters into business relations with companies, which source this particular product from that state. For instance, the Government of Uzbekistan has been proven to use Uzbek children and adults to carry out forced labour in cotton fields.
Box 8 Cotton crimes in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is one of the top world producers of cotton – it exports around 850,000 tonnes of cotton every year. It is estimated that the annual profit from the cotton trade amounts to $1 billion. Unsurprisingly, cotton is referred to as Uzbekistan’s ‘white gold’.
In order to achieve such high profits from the cotton industry, every year the Government of Uzbekistan forces children and adults to work on cotton farms. The workers receive very little or no payment for their work. The Government of Uzbekistan makes large profits from the sale of cotton to some of the largest clothing companies in the world.
The conditions of work on cotton farms are very harsh and have adverse impacts on children’s and adults’ health.
The video, White Gold – the True Cost of Cotton (2007), outlines some of the key aspects of cotton trade in Uzbekistan.
In both cases, what drives forced labour is the low cost of manufacturing the final product. This appears to be a very lucrative method of obtaining the maximum profit by large businesses worldwide. However, the ethical dimension of this practice is highly questionable.
The issue of state liability for human rights violations with regard to forced labour in the cotton industry is fairly straightforward when the state is directly involved in forcing people to work in the cotton fields. Where states are directly involved in the perpetration of forced labour, the state is arguably in violation of key human rights provisions on slavery, servitude and forced labour (not to mention the violations of international labour standards set out in the ILO conventions). However, in situations where businesses are using forced labour without involving the state, the issue it a bit more complex. While the practice of employing forced labour is highly unethical, businesses are not parties to human rights treaties and they do not generally owe human rights obligations. That said, if it can be shown that a government fails to regulate the impact of businesses on human rights or fails to ensure access to justice for victims of human rights abuses involving business, then a state may be held in violation of human rights.