The political and humanitarian crises in Ukraine are reshaping the landscape for supply chain accountability throughout the broader region. More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine into neighboring countries, according to the UN. Prior to the Ukraine crisis, the numbers of internally displaced people and refugees globally were already at record highs, with more than 26 million Syrians, Central Americans, Venezuelans, South Sudanese, Rohingya, and others living as refugees abroad, and more than 84 million people around the world forcibly displaced in the first half of 2021. People fleeing war or other grave threats such as environmental crises seek basic safety as well as livelihood, and are among the most vulnerable of workers. As they are integrated into the workforces of receiving countries, their potential to be exploited, including falling victim to forced labor and human trafficking, is a real risk, one that companies have a responsibility to address proactively through heightened due diligence and other measures.
Last year, Verité collaborated with the Tent Partnership, a global organization mobilizing the business community to improve the livelihoods of refugees, to produce the report Combating Forced and Child Labor of Refugees in Global Supply Chains: The Role of Responsible Sourcing. The report includes research and recommendations for employer due diligence, as well as highlighting the importance of seeing refugees in a positive light as contributors, rather than just as problems to be solved.
Migrant workers in general, and refugees and other displaced people in particular, face numerous vulnerabilities to labor exploitation, including:
- uncertain pathways to leaving the home country amidst conflict or other instability, leading to risks of deceptive recruitment, debt bondage, contract substitution, or human trafficking, as well as exploitation on the job in a host country such as wage withholding or forced overtime;
- a lack of, or unclear, immigration status or clearance for employment in the host country, coupled with juggling immediate livelihood needs and potentially uncertain access to shelter, child-care, or other necessities;
- differential access to legal status or access to employment in a host country for different categories of migrants, refugees, or displaced people;
- discrimination in employment due to gender, race, ethnicity, or country of origin; and
- lack of support networks or other resources to help them navigate employment abuses or other livelihood challenges.
As companies respond to crises and seek efficiencies by reconfiguring supply chains, they may shift production and/or labor sourcing across geographies in ways that expose them to heightened labor and other human rights risks. In an increasingly unstable world shaped by climate change, the rise of authoritarianism, and other fundamental challenges to human rights and rule of law, it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies simply to avoid “problematic” regions when choosing where to source goods and do business. Instead, companies must manage their exposure to risks such as labor exploitation by anticipating crisis situations, pursuing continual assessment of risk exposure, and planning for direct engagement with civil society and government stakeholders to address the vulnerabilities that may be experienced by their workers and suppliers.
The Verité Tent Report elaborates examples of business or brand initiatives to promote safe and fair livelihoods for refugee populations in their supply chains. Common elements for businesses or brands designing this type of initiative include:
- continual assessment of the whole supply chain (including labor suppliers or intermediaries) to identify root causes of vulnerabilities, such as the presence of deceptive or other risky hiring practices, debt bondage, and on the job rights violations such as wage withholding, forced overtime, sexual harassment, or child labor;
- identification of linkages or leverage points that may be present in moments of crisis for example, through providing businesses with opportunities to influence governing bodies to alter policy environments (including enforcement) in ways that improve protections for the human rights of workers (including the right to work);
- planning for pro-active crisis resiliency through directly engaging with cascading issues businesses and workers face in conflict or other crisis situations, for example, promoting ethical recruitment and enabling clear and safe pathways to decent work and livelihood; and
- having an ethical exit strategy when resituating a supply chain, anticipating consequences for workers left behind.
Given the call for companies and brands to plan for comprehensive ethical hiring and responsible sourcing in the context of conflict or other instability, Verité has many existing tools and resources for ethical recruitment to provide guidance to companies planning for engagement with refugees or other displaced people in their supply chain:
- Verité’s Responsible Sourcing Tool is a website with tools and resources to help companies and federal contractors understand and prevent risks of human trafficking in supply chains; it includes a specific set of ethical recruitment resources for the private security sector doing business in conflict areas;
- Verité’s Palm Oil Producers Toolkit provides guidance and tools tailored to the specific challenges brands, suppliers, and producers face when promoting ethical recruitment within an agricultural supply chain; a sector which often employs refugees and other displaced people for seasonal as well as long-term work.
Additional guidance on business and conflict situations:
- UN-OHCHR project reports on Doing Business in Conflict-Affected Regions
- Business and Human Rights Resource Center guidance on doing business in conflict areas
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