Who is making your stuff? A look at labour exploitation in supply chains

Stories of labour exploitation make headlines time and again. It seems that forced labour is in almost every product – shoes made in factories where workers labour 18 hours a day with meagre salaries and no overtime pay, clothes sewn by children who are not attending school, batteries for phones made with minerals extracted in conflict zones by people who see none of the profits. Unfortunately there is no certainty that the clothes we are wearing, the shoes on our feet and the cell phone in our pocket are not affected by this problem.

Companies usually are not purposefully producing their products with forced labour. The problem is that companies’ supply chains are extremely long and complex, making them difficult to oversee. Take for example, the bed sheets you sleep on; first, the cotton must be planted and picked. Next, the raw cotton is sent to spinning mills where it is turned into fibre. After that, it is processed into fabric. This fabric is then sent to a factory where it is cut and sewed into a final product. Until the bed sheet reaches the consumer, the materials to produce it have travelled thousands of kilometres and were processed by countless pairs of hands. There could potentially be labour exploitation in every one of these production steps as it is difficult for the company that sells the sheets to keep track of every worker involved.

The company that sells the bed sheets does not typically own the fields where the cotton is grown, or the factories where the raw material is turned into fabric. Companies are also unlikely to own the factories that create the final product. Instead, suppliers (usually in developing countries) are contracted to produce certain goods. These suppliers are in charge of hiring their own workforce.

The people who are employed in these types of factories are usually low-skilled workers, and often migrants. Labour migration is crucial to our economies as migrant workers fill the labour and skills gaps that exist in countries. However, migrant workers are susceptible to labour trafficking and exploitation. This is because migrants are often marginalized, have limited access to legal and medical services and lack the protection of family and social networks that locals may have. Migrant workers are often recruited under false promises of good wages and working conditions. Once at their workplace they can have their documents confiscated and may be threatened or coerced to work under bad conditions. Products from exploited migrant workers then get distributed all over the world through the intricate supply chains that exist in this era of globalization.

Despite the difficulty of overseeing complex supply chains, there are plenty of motivations for companies to implement strategies that can fix these problems. Primarily, human trafficking is a crime and companies can face legal penalties if found guilty of forced labour. Additionally, cases of human trafficking can cause severe damage to a brand’s reputation and this can be costly as 30 per cent of a business’ value is attributed to its brand. Conversely, a company that publically aims for a clean and sustainable supply chain may also attract more customers, as a study suggests that 87 per cent of customers are likely to change to brands that are associated with a “higher purpose”.

Consumers are becoming more aware and conscious about the products they buy and are increasingly calling on companies for more transparency in their supply chains. In the United States consumers have filed a number of class action lawsuits against companies for not disclosing that there was forced labour involved in their supply chains. Employees themselves are also starting to file lawsuits against companies. Even if such lawsuits are not successful, it is another motivator for companies to eliminate forced labour from their supply chains.

Cleaning up human trafficking and forced labour in supply chains is unfortunately not a quick and easy fix, because there are so many suppliers and workers involved, often spanning multiple continents. Yet since a series of stories broke about child labour in creating goods for major sports brands in the 1990s, companies seem increasingly motivated to clean up supply chains; a study shows that 54 per cent of Fortune 100 companies have policies in place that target human trafficking and 68 per cent have made a commitment to monitor their supply chains. There are a number of effective solutions that are being implemented, some of which you can read about in our next blog.

Give your audience what it wants

When we make a video here at IOM X, our research team steps in to make sure that what is being created will be clear and appealing to our target audience. Getting feedback along the way helps improve the final product, which will increase the likelihood of having a strong impact with viewers.

One way to get feedback is by holding focus group discussions. This means getting a small group of people together, who ideally match the characteristics of your target audience and presenting them with the idea or the draft product. They are then asked to discuss their thoughts, feelings and emotions towards it.

IOM X recently released a YouTube miniseries that revolves around exploitation and human trafficking in the garment industry. The story is about a fictional clothing company, ‘Torres Fashion’. The company is run by Winston, a young entrepreneur, and the clothes are produced by Mr. Cho, a factory owner. Like some clothing brands we wear on a daily basis, the factory in the miniseries cuts corners, exploiting workers under conditions tantamount to forced labour.

The aim of the miniseries is to make viewers aware of the fact that their clothing may be produced with the use of forced labour or exploitative practices. The viewers should be left thinking and caring about the labour that goes into the products that they use on a daily basis and moved enough to share the videos with their friends.

Armed with the first two scripts of our YouTube miniseries, IOM X’s research and learning team set off to find participants for our focus groups. Three separate discussions with students from Mahidol University and Thammasat University in Bangkok took place. A mix of about 30 bachelor and master’s students, from many different countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam participated in the focus groups.

While each group had different preferences and feedback, some of the same points were raised in all three discussions. For example, Winston’s sister, Lian came across as too stereotypical. In the original script, Lian was an unfashionable intern who cares about the environment and human rights. One participant pointed out, “I think it is a stereotype that people who are not fashionable care about human trafficking”. Another agreed, “It seems very Ugly Betty-ish,” she said.

In two of the three focus groups the idea of having facts at the end of each episode to help raise awareness about exploitation of factory workers came up. A student suggested, “Something that is visual is easier to understand. Maybe have evidence at the end, facts about what trafficking really looks like”. This prompted IOM X to include a quiz question at the end of each episode to let viewers test their knowledge about trafficking and exploitation in the garment industry.

Another common point of feedback from focus group participants was that they do not like to wait for new episodes of a series to be released. One participant explained, “Our generation likes to binge watch. I won’t remember to come back next week to watch the next episode”. Another said, “A week between episodes might be too long. All episodes should be released at the same time. Netflix made me this way. I hate when there is only one episode because then I can’t binge”. Based on this feedback IOM X decided to release all episodes of the YouTube miniseries at once.

Once the focus groups discussions were finished, the IOM X team sat down and discussed the comments generated in the three discussions. The issues that were most often raised were then noted, and this feedback was delivered to the production company, which made the appropriate changes to the scripts. The YouTube miniseries you can now watch HERE, features all these changes.

To learn more about forced labour, visit IOMX.org/ForcedLabour

Campfires & Campaigns: Young people tackle human trafficking in Belarus


Human trafficking is something that seems to happen somewhere far from us. Many people think that slavery is a holdover from the past. But then arises the question: why are there still millions of victims of labor and sexual exploitation, organ removal and economic abuse? The answer is clear. Human trafficking is the problem of the modern world that we cannot underestimate.

With such thoughts in my mind I was leaving for the youth summer camp “Learn.Act.Share” organized by IOM Belarus. I was ready for learning, as any conscious action starts with knowledge. Every day I had a unique opportunity to meet with experts in the field of counter-trafficking and related fields as well, such as gender equality, HIV prevention, Internet security, children’s rights protection, etc. I admire those people as all of them are highly qualified specialists who are really committed to what they do. Their experience and adherence inspires me, it means that if they can do something – so can I.


Participants at the summer camp.


After the camp we opened a new facet of our personalities – readiness to act: I’m going to organize the training on safe migration, employment and studies abroad for students I work with at school; Kostya will tell his groupmates about refugee issues; Vlada will create a social video on the matter with her colleagues; Nikita will create a network of volunteers. And these are only our first steps!


Summer camp activity. 


Some people say that global problems cannot be solved as it is impossible to change the whole world. Indeed, it’s very difficult to stop human trafficking as it is a crime that brings a lot of money for traffickers. It will take time. However, I believe in our success because we will make it together. By uniting our efforts and supporting each other’s initiatives, we won’t let anyone get into trouble, we will help and we will make our world better.

You can view a video from the summer camp here.

Maria is a facilitator at a school in a small town called Zhodino close to Minsk in Belarus. She likes traveling, rock and roll, learning new languages and making post cards.