A 13-year-old working a construction job in Miami instead of going to school. A 15-year-old working the graveyard shift in a food packaging plant in Michigan drops out of school so she can sleep. Tales of these and other children, especially migrant children, working dangerous and gruelling jobs were featured in a recent New York Times article.  

But these cases are hardly new, nor is child labour the only issue.

Economically disadvantaged people have been trafficked into countries as sources of “cheap” labour throughout history. The International Labour Organization estimates more than 50 million people around the world are trapped in some form of modern slavery. 

Too many case studies to count

There are so many heartbreaking examples: 

  • Men forced to work in searing heat without access to water or shade while building stadiums for the FIFA World Cup, many of whom died from heat exhaustion; 
  • Men trapped on Southeast Asian fishing boats subjected to both physical and sexual abuse; 
  • Women forced to live in abandoned shipping containers without running water or electricity whilst working for $1 an hour as housekeepers for a luxury hotel chain.

Workers who have not been trafficked are also subject to mistreatment and horrible working conditions only to be fired when they speak up. It is also important to note that non-physical jobs can also be subject to abuse and labour law violations. For example, the story of a young man in Africa working as a content moderator for a large social media company.  

He and his fellow employees apparently worked 12-hour shifts viewing and blocking some of the most horrific social media content imaginable. Suffering from depression and the effects of repeated exposure to trauma-inducing content, he and his coworkers asked for mental health services, shorter working hours and an increase to the only $2 an hour they were being paid.

They were subsequently fired in retaliation for complaining. 

Then there are the hundreds of workers killed each year in garment factory fires as a result of shoddy safety practices. In many cases, people died because exit doors were blocked or locked, trapping people inside burning buildings.

Sadly, there are countless examples of workplaces where workers are constantly denied basic human rights.  There are still workers for whom even the right to personal safety and the right to be free from torture are not guaranteed. These direct and devasting impacts on millions of workers around the world have been the driving force behind multiple new pieces of legislation aimed at pushing corporate supply chains to become not only more aware of these issues but also more accountable.

While laws like the UK Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act have been around for years, they focus primarily on requiring companies to publish a public statement describing the efforts they are taking to prevent human trafficking and forced labour. A new batch of laws is quickly emerging that will change the standards.

A new hope: Emerging laws to combat labour violations 

The U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect in June of 2022 and created a presumption that all products with a supply chain connection to the Xinxiang Province in China have been made using forced labour. 

This presumption is difficult to overcome and requires extensive mapping, documentation and diligence on each product’s full global supply chain to prove the negative – an absence of any connection to forced labour – before import into the United States will be allowed.

Following on the heels of the US law, the German Corporate Due Diligence in Supply Chains Act, effective as of 1/1/2023, applies to companies with offices in Germany with 3,000+ employees initially, and to those with 1,000+ employees as of 1/1/2024. 

The law will also apply indirectly to many more companies as the requirements are “pushed down” to suppliers. Under the Act, diligence is required to root out numerous acts, including:

  • child labour, 
  • human trafficking, 
  • forced labour, 
  • all forms of slavery and oppression of workers, 
  • discrimination, 
  • withholding of fair wages, 
  • torture, 
  • preventing workers from free association and organization, 
  • the production of dangerous chemicals including those with Mercury and other Persistent Organic Pollutants under the Stockholm Convention, 
  • the export and import of hazardous waste. 

The German Act also specifically requires companies to develop a risk management system, appoint a Human Rights Officer, adopt and implement human rights policies, have a human rights complaint and remediation system, and develop preventive actions including human rights due diligence practices on which they are expected to report to government authorities. 

Importantly, these obligations apply not only to the companies themselves, but also to their supply chains, meaning companies will need to conduct diligence on, and develop controls to monitor compliance by both their direct and indirect suppliers.

However, Germany is not alone in this crusade, the rest of Europe is following close behind with the EU’s new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. This EU-wide directive will similarly require due diligence on human rights throughout corporate supply chains along with specific reporting requirements.  

The Directive will phase in over time, but will eventually apply to employers in the EU with as few as 250 employees. Publicly listed companies with as few as 10 employees will be subject to these laws. While additional guidance is expected later this year, the first reporting year is expected to be 2024 for larger companies and 2025 for smaller ones. 

Europe isn’t the only region addressing this issue with new legislation. Canada’s Parliament recently approved its own Forced Labor Law, Bill S-211, with an effective date of January 1, 2024.  This new law also requires companies to publicly report on the due diligence systems they have in place to detect forced labour in their supply chains. 

With this new law, Canada joins similar directives in Australia, Japan, Brazil and multiple other countries. 

Human rights due diligence is no longer just a moral imperative, but is quickly becoming a legal imperative as well. Even small companies, regardless of their lack of international operations, must actively do their due diligence and develop supply chain mapping systems to meet the escalating demands of an expanding array of laws.