By Kieran Guilbert
NEW HAVEN, United States, Nov 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Major corporations who claim to be committed to tackling the threat of forced labor often tell "fairytales" that belie workplace exploitation and shirk responsibility for cleaning up their supply chains, academics and activists told a conference.
From tea and chocolate makers to hotels, many companies sign up to anti-slavery certification schemes or codes of conduct at the expense of taking direct action to engage with their workers and stamp out abuse, experts said at U.S.-based Yale University.
Such initiatives are often sub-standard and fail to combat worker exploitation despite being widely hailed by the private sector, said Genevieve LeBaron, a politics professor and anti-slavery academic at Britain's Sheffield University.
A study by LeBaron, revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in May, found some Indian tea plantations stamped slavery-free by groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance were abusing and underpaying workers.
"The stories that companies are telling us about efforts to fight forced labour in supply chains are ... basically fairytales," she told the annual conference on modern slavery.
"(Certification schemes) improve corporates' reputations and give the impression that the problem of forced labor in supply chains is slowly disappearing - so that we don't push for the alternatives that would challenge the status quo," LeBaron said.
Workers should be paid the so-called "living wage", have job security and the power to exert their labor rights, she added.
About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, from farms to factories, the United Nations says.
As the world strives to meet a U.N. global goal of ending the $150 billion a year crime by 2030, consumers worldwide are increasingly demanding to know whether the products they buy - ranging from cosmetics to clothes - are free of forced labor.
Yet anti-slavery certification schemes, accolades and awards are hardly reliable indicators for the public when choosing between companies, according to Neha Misra, a trafficking expert with the U.S.-based workers' rights charity Solidarity Center.
"The same time as you're giving a gold star to a company, they're firing workers for trying to organise in the workplace ... or women for getting pregnant at work," she said.
However, such initiatives can play a role in making businesses more transparent and be used to hold them to account, said Luis deBaca, a U.S. lawyer and former ambassador who led the government's anti-trafficking efforts under President Obama.
"For some companies, signing code of conducts might just be virtue signalling," he told the conference. "But we can use them to pressure them and ask them to start signalling such virtues."
Two separate studies published this week found that pressure by big brands on suppliers to deliver more quickly and cheaply fuels labour abuses in factories, and that companies often fail to cover growing costs in their supply chains.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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