Forced labor in global supply chains

Qatar – Labor exploitation – Corporate responsibility

Close to 25 million people, are currently in forced labor worldwide. Among the most vulnerable in society, they often include children, people with little to no formal education, and migrants. Most migrant workers come from marginalized situations, setting out abroad with the hope of earning an income to feed themselves and their families.

In a comprehensive study, ECCHR has examined whether European companies through their transnational operations cause or contribute to forced labor or other labor abuses along their supply chains and whether they can be held to account. The result of this work is reflected in the report Accountability for forced labor in a globalized economy.


For its research into the topic of forced labor in transnational supply chains, ECCHR focussed on the construction sector in Qatar. This included cooperation with local partners in the home countries of migrant workers and research on the ground in Qatar. The problem of labor exploitation in the Qatari construction sector has received increased public attention through reporting on the massive expansion of construction projects ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. However, the problem does not only persist in Qatar and other countries in the Gulf region.

Forced labor is driven by the dynamics of a market-oriented global economy. In countries like Bangladesh, India or Kenya, there exists a growing number of “working poor.” Both poverty and a global work force vulnerable to forced labor are socially constructed conditions that feed a demand for cheap labor that ensures profitability of labor-intensive sectors.


Forced labor risks are particularly high in sectors that rely on outsourcing their operations, such as construction, hospitality, domestic or care work, all of which frequently rely on migrant workers. The companies that operate in these sectors can be often characterized by long (labor) supply chains. These supply chains dissociate transnational corporations from abuses on the ground. The process of exploitation often begins with malpractice in recruitment, which is widespread in global labor supply chains and, in its worst form, can amount to human trafficking.

Companies need to take a proactive and preventative approach through human rights due diligence, by substantially addressing concrete risks of labor exploitation in their supply chains, taking into account realities on the ground. A company that does not verify and act upon bad recruitment practices in its supply chain not only sustains the conditions for forced labor, but also risks complicity.


Cover: "Accountability for forced labor in a globalized economy" © Photo: Anonymous
Cover: "Accountability for forced labor in a globalized economy" © Photo: Anonymous


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International Labour Organization (ILO)

The International Labour Organization is a United Nations agency with headquarters in Geneva. It is responsible for formulating and enforcing international standards on labor and social protection. These globally applicable minimum standards are designed to guarantee rights at work and promote humane and decent work for everyone.

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Corporate responsibility

In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.

Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.

However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.

ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.


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