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Global Economy 'Breakdown' Seen Putting More Workers at Risk of Slavery

FILE - Migrant laborers work at a construction site in Doha, Qatar, March 26, 2016.
FILE - Migrant laborers work at a construction site in Doha, Qatar, March 26, 2016.

The world's economic model has "broken down" as the business practices of multinational corporations and digital platforms put a growing number of workers at risk of exploitation and modern slavery, according to a leading labor rights campaigner.

Too many companies are failing to take responsibility for workers in their supply chains, while governments must do more to hold firms to account on labor rights, said Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

About two billion people — more than 60% of the world's workforce — are in informal work, leaving them vulnerable to being underpaid, overworked and treated like slaves, she said.

And the rise of digital platforms from food to taxi apps where workers lack proper contracts and social protections means that key rights such as a living wage, trade unionization and fair working conditions are under growing threat, Burrow added.

"The world's employment framework has broken down ... we need a new social contract to clean up forced labor," said Burrow, the ITUC general secretary and a speaker at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference on Wednesday.

"If you don't have the rule of law, from corporate or responsible business conduct to government regulation ... nobody is going to be in a position to look towards a secure future."

The ITUC, which has more than 207 million members, says it is the world's leading body fighting for the rights of workers.

About 25 million people are estimated to be victims of forced labor, and companies are facing rising consumer pressure to clean up their supply chains with the issue in the spotlight since the United Nations set a target of ending slavery by 2030.

Burrow called upon businesses to do more to identify the risk of exploitation and slavery in their operations and provide workers with avenues to report abuse without fear of reprisals, and urged governments to ensure labour rights are respected.

She pointed to Qatar — which relies on about 2 million migrant workers for the bulk of its workforce - as a positive example of how pressure from labor rights groups over what they described as modern slavery could lead to broad labour reforms.

Doha last month announced a new minimum wage law and steps to end the "kafala" sponsorship system, which binds workers to one employer and has been criticized as abusive.

Yet the global outlook for workers' rights is concerning, Burrow said, citing recent ITUC research that showed workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72% of countries and found a spike in the number of nations blocking trade unionization.

"For workers, the struggle continues for fundamental rights, a minimum living wage, the right to bargain collectively, and the guarantee of a safe workplace," she said. "Every business ... and government must be held to account."