speri.comment: the political economy blog

Understanding vulnerability to forced labour in global supply chains

Forced labour is prevalent in the tea and cocoa industries and is happening in the context of widespread labour abuse

Genevieve LeBaron, Professor of Politics and co-director of SPERI

In my remarks at an ETI Ethical Insights discussion on what drives modern slavery in global supply chains, I outlined findings from my Global Business of Forced Labour project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The project systematically mapped the business of forced labour in global supply chains, focusing on cocoa and tea supply chains. It included in-depth interviews with over 120 tea and cocoa workers, a survey of over 1,000 tea and cocoa workers in India and Ghana, and over 100 interviews with business and government actors.

Briefly put, my research suggests that working in an industry where more minor forms of labour abuse are endemic is a key factor that makes workers vulnerable to forced labour. Let me explain why.

My research found that forced labour in the tea and cocoa industries is happening in the context of widespread labour abuse; it’s not happening in a context where most workers are doing fine and then there are a few unlucky workers who have evil managers or bad employers and become victims of forced labour.

Every worker in our study reported some form of labour abuse or unfair treatment.

Broad patterns of exploitation

It’s impossible to understand the patterns of forced labour in the cocoa and tea industries without understanding the broader patterns of labour abuse and exploitation – and the business models through which producers seek to profit from unfair treatment of a low-paid and vulnerable workforce.

Wages in both sectors are very low; in Ghana and India, the poverty line is approximately £2.35 per day.

My research found that:

  • The average daily wage for a tea worker in India can be as low as 25% of the poverty line amount (a fraction of minimum wage), and cocoa workers’ wages are around 30% of the poverty line amount.
  • Almost 60% of tea workers have no life savings, and 55% of cocoa workers have no savings. The workforce in both sectors is very poor and their jobs are reinforcing that poverty rather than alleviating it.

Our study included over a dozen measures of labour abuse and unfair treatment for each industry; we found that most of these forms are incredibly widespread.

… in the tea

In tea, where employers have an obligation to provide basic necessities for workers living on their plantations, almost half of workers lacked access to clean drinkable water, while nearly a quarter lacked a toilet, and a quarter reliable electricity.

Forty percent of tea workers had unfair deductions from their wages; for instance, they were charged for electricity that wasn’t actually provided, or for a good or service that should have been provided free of charge. These are startlingly high numbers.

Verbal abuse, threats, and coercion are similarly common.  Physical violence and sexual violence are less common but do happen, and workers reported facing retaliation and coercion when they tried to report unfair treatment, were involved in protests, or attempted to change employers from one plantation to another.

… and cocoa sectors

A different set of measures was relevant in cocoa, but some forms of abuse and unfair treatment were equally widespread.

Almost a quarter of cocoa workers in our study reported having performed work they were not paid for. This usually took the form of mandatory involuntary labour on another worksite or farm owned by their employer, which sometimes lasted as long as three months.

Workers reported that this unpaid and involuntary labour was a condition of their employment on cocoa farms. As in tea, in the cocoa industry, forms of abuse like underpayment and debt bondage are very widespread, and sometimes accompanied by violent treatment, threats, coercion, and gender-based violence.

Now, not all of this is forced labour. A lot of it is just really bad labour abuse that doesn’t quite meet the threshold of forced labour as defined by the International Labour Organization.

But in practice, we found that forced labour is very hard to isolate from abuse more broadly, and that workers move in between forced labour and more minor forms of abuse in relatively short periods of time.

Furthermore, the event or circumstances that can cause a worker’s experience to cross the threshold from more minor forms of abuse to forced labour can be relatively arbitrary.

… mean that one contingency can trigger severe abuse

We found that it often just took one contingency — a child getting sick, a worker having a heart attack, a worker needing more food to feed a growing family — to push a worker from regularized abuse into the more severe forms of abuse known as forced labour.

Often, when these emergencies arise, workers borrow money from whomever will lend it to them (often a manager or employer), even if they are charged high interest rates. The workers in our study regularly reported being charged 100% interest. In the context of already low wages and poverty, this can push a worker into severe debt bondage.

This is why working in an industry where labour abuse is endemic and wages are very low is a key factor creating vulnerability to forced labour.

… as workers struggle on ultralow wages

As well as living in severe poverty, underpayment increases workers’ vulnerability to forms of labour abuse such as debt bondage, as they are forced to take on high interest debts to cover basic needs and services like food and healthcare.

But this wouldn’t happen if workers were paid enough to meet their daily needs, if medical care was provided to them as it is supposed to be, and if they earned enough that they could have savings to spend on emergencies.

In any industry where workers have very low wages, combined with limited access to justice, face constraints on their ability to exert labour rights, and have little to no alternative means of making a living, there is a high risk of forced labour.


Genevieve led a discussion about her research at an ETI Ethical Insights event on June 18th 2018. Discussions at Ethical Insights events challenge assumptions and take an honest look at how much effort is being put into managing risk and reputation versus changing business models. They are an open, informal space for everyone who works in ethical trade to build a spirit of collaboration in learning. More information can be obtained from ETI’s Head of Modern Slavery Strategy Cindy Berman at cindy.berman@eti.org.uk. This blog was first published on the ETI blog.
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