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Report: Actionable Ways Brands Can—And Should—Fight Forced Labor

Forced labor remains a major issue in the apparel sector, and organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, are helping companies protect workers’ rights.

The FLA’s latest report, “Addressing Risks of Forced Labor in Supply Chains: Protecting Workers from Unfair Restrictions on their Freedoms at Work,” addressed six standards for identifying and eradicating forced labor from the industry. With this guide, suppliers can take the steps to prevent violations, and brands can ensure that their suppliers don’t engage in harmful practices.

FLA standards require that workers have the right to work on their terms, have reasonable freedom of movement at work, be free from constraints that bind them to employment by debt and have the option to work overtime only with consent. The association says if companies assess their supply chains against these standards and remedy employment issues, they could contribute to global progress against forced labor and human trafficking.

Mandatory overtime

FLA’s code requires that overtime be voluntary, without punishment for workers who refuse to stay at the factory.

Over the past few years, FLA assessors found violations of this standard in factories across China, Vietnam and the U.S., since workers were obligated to stay overtime and unable to leave the work premises after their shifts ended. Other violations included failure to provide workers with a rest day and failure to compensate them at premium overtime rates.

Among FLA’s recommendations in this are for brands to require their suppliers remove mandatory overtime requirements and ensure that workers know they aren’t compelled to stay past required hours.

High production targets

The FLA says unrealistic piece-rate production targets often result in employees having to work overtime to earn the legal minimum wage.

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In a recent assessment in Haiti, FLA found that one factory set their piece-rate so high that employees had to work 9.5 hours to sew enough garments to earn the minimum wage requirement for eight hours of labor.

FLA standards require companies to adjust production targets so that employees that put in a regular workweek can earn a living. FLA also advises companies to set their production targets so that overtime payment is less than the premium pay required by law.

Recruitment fees and wage advances

Some factories impose recruitment fees on workers, so that workers without money are provided with loans, which lock them into their jobs until debts are paid—which the FLA says is a labor violation.

While studying factories worldwide, the FLA found that migrant workers are the most at risk for this scenario, especially those located in Southeast Asia and Jordan. In these regions, the FLA discovered that workers were charged amounts equal to more than three month’s wages.

FLA says one way to avoid this issue is to ensure workers are never be required to pay for work, including fees imposed by outside entities. And once workers are hired, wage advances should never exceed legal limits.

Control of employee documents

In some cases, once workers are hired, some factories have requested to hold onto workers’ personal identity papers including passports and visas, which is considered unethical.

Under FLA standards, brands are held accountable for checking that suppliers clearly inform workers about the right to hold their personal documents and that workers are not required to leave deposits if they take time off. If workers consent to give in their personal documents to factories, they have the right to access their personal documents at all times.

[Read more on labor violations: Lululemon, REI Factory in El Salvador Takes Heat for Workers’ Rights Violations]

Employer controlled residences

Employers who unreasonably hold workers within an employer-controlled space—by imposing strict curfews or locking doors—is considered a violation of FLA standards.

To ensure fair housing, employers are not permitted to force workers to live in employer-owned or controlled residences for continued employment. FLA says workers should be free to choose their own residences, and if they choose housing provided by their employers, they have the right to come and go as needed.

Timely payment

FLA says that in some cases workers are not paid in a timely manner, making them fear that they will never be compensated if they leave their jobs.

FLA suggests that companies pay employees all wages, including overtime payment, within legally defined time limits. If the local law doesn’t provide a time limit, employers should pay workers at least once a month.

Company recommendations

FLA provided recommendations for companies to take preventative measures and protect workers in their supply chains.

Proactive communication with suppliers is crucial from sourcing to finished product. Under FLA guidelines, FLA requires companies to ensure that suppliers comply with labor laws and recognize potential signs of abuse. If suppliers are in the know, then they can prevent labor abuse and ensure that their factories are compliant with wages and treatment.

Company staff should also be aware of the potential for forced labor, including areas that have high migrant populations and widely use labor contractors. Investment in assessments is a step toward reducing forced labor, since companies can regularly check up on factories’ working conditions.

At the factory level, companies can establish direct-to-worker grievance channels in the native language of workers, so workers may report forced labor incidents without barriers. Discussions on purchasing and production practices are important as well, so workers aren’t forced to work overtime to meet too-high production targets.