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A conversation with Dr. Tomoya Obokata, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery

A conversation with Dr. Tomoya Obokata, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery

Dr. Tomoya Obokata is the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. He has extensive experience working with multi-sector stakeholders on the issues of modern slavery, human trafficking and transnational organised crime. slavefreetrade had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Obokata to discuss reasons behind the persistence of modern slavery in global supply chains, the growing drive towards social sustainability, and why businesses must act to keep their operations free from forced labour and other human rights abuses.  

On why modern slavery persists 

What do you think are the main factors contributing to the continuance of slavery in modern society?  

There are a wide variety of factors. Firstly, there is a lack of legislative framework to prohibit and prosecute these crimes. Impunity and corruption are also big issues in certain jurisdictions, but they affect all countries. Other main factors include poverty, as well as discrimination on different grounds. Some groups are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery; this includes women, children, indigenous groups and minorities who have traditionally been discriminated against in their own societies. All of these factors contribute to the persistence of modern slavery.  

People often don’t talk about this, but it is also important to remember that the supply and demand dynamic also plays a role. Why are workers being enslaved or exploited? Because of the strong demand for cheap labour across different sectors, which is linked to consumer demand for cheap products and services. So, we have to tackle the demand side of things too. If we can change the mentality of consumers, this will gradually change the behaviour of businesses as well. All stakeholders would need to work together to bring about a behavioural change to reduce this reliance on cheap or even forced labour.  

If we look at the consumer demand for cheap goods, that implies that there is a price band which companies seek to target, because they want to meet consumers’ price expectations. So, if other elements of their production costs, such as the cost of raw materials, are fixed, some businesses would instead try to cut down on their labour costs as much as possible. From a legislative perspective, what are the interventions which you believe can help to address this problem? 

In terms of the cost of labour, minimum wage is different in each country. It is up to each country to determine this, but from a human rights perspective, all workers must be compensated fairly and paid a wage equivalent to the work they do. But this remains a complicated issue. When we look at minimum wage legislation, this does exist in many countries, but is it enforced at the ground level? For instance, recently, news emerged about garment factories in the UK, in Leicester, where workers were being paid less than the minimum wage. And this stems from the fact that these workers were vulnerable to exploitation; for instance, many of them couldn’t speak English. For me, this is a clear case of forced labour. So again, there might be a law but translating that to practice is a challenge. That is why we have to work on changing the mentality of businesses, and this is where the idea of social sustainability comes in. Businesses should understand that they cannot make profit at the expense of people, the environment and society at large. This is not a sustainable way forward. 

How has the evolution of human rights law in recent times helped in closing some of the gaps in remediating modern slavery issues?  

Human rights law will continue to play an important role, especially in the areas of protection and remedies for victims of modern slavery and forced labour. These aspects have not been particularly strong in existing international instruments such as the Slavery Convention, the Forced Labour Convention, as well as the Trafficking Protocol which is attached to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Thus, human rights law has stepped in to close some of these protection gaps. But of course, the key challenge here is for states to follow these legal obligations. This has not always been easy, particularly for economically disadvantaged or weak states in the Global South. 

As you mentioned, developing countries face greater challenges in preventing the human rights abuses of workers. However, even in certain developed countries, with mature human rights legislation, we see that perhaps social sustainability has not caught on as much. Why does this gap exist? 

There are power relations at play; governments should enforce human rights law but if businesses bring economic benefits to the country, there might be hesitance on the part of the government to strictly enforce existing legislations, and I believe that has to change. Businesses that exploit vulnerable workers need to know that laws are there and they can be enforced. For this reason, the role of other stakeholders such as civil society and an independent judiciary are extremely important for ensuring that human rights norms and principles are upheld. So, we need to look at strengthening not only legislation, but also judiciaries which are in the position of enforcing these laws.  

On the growing awareness and shift towards social sustainability

The idea of sustainability is a relatively recent one; to your mind what are the factors that have led to it becoming more talked about by businesses and consumers? What social or cultural changes are happening on the ground right now which could help social sustainability? 

I believe that this momentum for change is being driven at a grassroots level. An increasing number of consumers are becoming aware of the issues affecting workers, such as forced labour and other human rights abuses. Today, social media has become a powerful tool for increasing transparency and accountability. Thanks to social media, consumers can now voice their concerns [on unethical business practices]. Activists and civil society organisations can also raise their voices and mobilise support for social change. We’ve seen that this can be very effective in encouraging companies to modify their behaviour in line with human rights norms and principles. In the future, as more and more companies listen to the voices of consumers and civil society, there will be greater progress towards social sustainability. 

On the role of businesses in the social sustainability space 

What are the key challenges, as you see them, for businesses in driving social sustainability? 

An obvious challenge is the preference for profit amongst businesses, which is given. Thus, the protection of workers’ human rights can come second for them, which has a negative impact on social sustainability. There is a need to change the profit-driven mentality of businesses and to help them understand that they can do business in a way that safeguards the rights of their workers, and that benefits people and society as a whole.  

An argument that is sometimes put forth is that there is a grey area in terms of what constitutes promoting the well-being of workers. For instance, are businesses furthering the ill of modern slavery or are they providing opportunities to lift a family out of poverty? How would you respond to that? 

Certain core values are universal no matter where you are. The prohibition of modern slavery is clearly established under international human rights law, and any exploitation of workers must be prohibited. It is true that vulnerable workers may be willing to take on hazardous jobs because of poverty but sufficient protections must be guaranteed, in terms of working conditions, pay and so on. Therefore, there are always certain bottom lines to be respected. 

Have you seen a resistance from businesses in this regard? 

It depends. Increasingly, we see that business, especially large corporations, are becoming conscious of these issues, and they are willingly signing up, for instance, to instruments such as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This is a positive step, but the extent to which they are actually promoting human rights within their supply chains in different parts of the world is open to question. If we talk about smaller-scale local suppliers in developing countries, are human rights norms and principles being respected? That’s why it’s important for this message to be put out, not only at the level of big corporations, but also for local-level factories, shops and employers.  

According to your observation, who are the leading influencers bringing about change in the social sustainability space? 

I cannot really name just one particular group. I would recommend a mechanism, be it a working group or a forum, where all stakeholders can get together on a regular basis, exchange information and come up with a plan of action to encourage businesses to abide by human rights norms and principles, and to protect the rights of their workers. I believe that social sustainability can be achieved more effectively when all stakeholders – governments, businesses, consumers, civil society and so forth – work together.  

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)