Students and faculty left the Barone Campus Center’s Dogwood Room on Wednesday, March 20, with a newfound understanding of the inhumane realities of forced labor, examined through a presentation from Senior Program Director of Research Innovation at Verité, Erin Klett. Her address underscored a need to combat forced labor practices all around the world.

Klett holds over 20 years of experience working towards advancements in forced labor measurements and the tracking of ethically made goods, namely within the electronic and apparel sectors. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), forced labor can be defined as “All work of service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

The foundation of Klett’s presentation, which examined her work in the field and then fielded audience questions, lay in the enlightenment of the severity of this global conflict. 

“It’s a worldwide problem,” she stated. “It happens in plain sight sometimes, and it’s definitely not happening only in third-world places.” This point highlighted locations such as Southeast Asia, Africa, Mexico, America and China.

Klett’s 30-minute talk commenced with a brief overview of the work accomplished at Verité, but quickly traveled to the history of forced labor and modern slavery. The speaker explained that forced labor equates to a form of modern slavery, sharing that 49.6 million people were modern slaves in 2021 and that half of those slaves endured forced labor.

This grave situation is most common with migrant workers who often bear vulnerability migrating in times of crisis. Services and manufacturing hold the highest number of forced labor cases, followed by construction. 

“[Forced labor] is big business,” she asserted to her audience. While the problem remains difficult to solve, she did not neglect the fact that forced labor, along with its profits, continues to rise. 

Regarding the two compartmentalized components of forced labor, involuntariness and penalty, indicators exist to measure the degrees to which they fit into ILO’s definition of malpractice. Indicators of involuntary work include factors like forced recruitment, recruitment linked to debt, degrading work-related living conditions, and those for penalty list actions such as physical or sexual violence, withholding of wages, restrictions on freedom and movement and induced addiction.

Klett transitioned her presentation to an overview of her own independent research throughout the electronic and apparel fields, which were recognized as the top two at-risk imports of forced labor out of an identified 14.

The researcher first showcased a study she conducted at Verité that, while not very recent, was one of the non-profit’s largest conducted studies and established a tipping point for forced labor advancements in the electronics industry. The piece interviewed 501 migrant workers across over 200 different factories in Malaysia. 

“We really put it out to the world because it was more of a call-to-action, ‘this is a serious problem.’ It really got well-covered and really, kind of, helped contribute to the seachange in the industry,” Klett noted with pride. Following the report, the Major Electronics Industry Association adopted a policy to ensure migrant workers do not pay recruitment fees. If they do pay, they are to be reimbursed by their employer. 

The study revealed that 32 percent of interviewed migrant workers were subjected to forced labor, and 77 percent of those workers had to borrow money in order to seal their positions. Often, modern slaves are not told an honest salary before recruitment, resulting in inadequate funds to pay off recruitment loans and, thus, a need for extended work.

Klett disclosed fees and debt as a top risk of forced labor, along with limited freedom of movement, inability to resign contracts and withholding of passports. 94 percent of Malaysian migrant workers were restricted from their passports, eliminating their ability to leave their country of employment.

Although the release of this study increased recruitment reimbursement and migrant protection between governments, the speaker confirmed a hefty amount of work still awaiting progress. She listed that, in 2019, Verité research found 90 electronic workers had still paid fees and, in 2020, only eleven of the world’s 49 largest ICT companies made serious efforts to fight forced labor.

“It’s still a spot check and a sort of spot intervention,” she reminded her listeners, agreeing on a lack of effective penalty from legislation and the need for more regulations and investments towards policy change. “At the end of the day, the problems are very much present.” 

Klett’s second demonstration of research was certainly a much quieter study, yet it clearly uncovered the top forced labor risks in the apparel sectors of Argentina, Mauritius and Madagascar. Funded by the United States Department of Labor (DOL), this study was a “collaborative exploration of problems,” according to Klett, conducted throughout 2021 and 2022 by long-time friend and Fairfield University’s own Professor Jennifer Cook.

Professor Cook is an assistant professor of International Studies and International Business and Sociology and Anthropology. With the help of Fairfield’s International Studies and International Business as sponsors, and the Economics Department, Applied Ethics Program, Latinx, Latin America and Caribbean Studies as co-sponsors, Cook invited Klett to the university herself. Introducing the speaker, Fairfield’s professor noted her own contributions to diverse, “on-and-off” projects at Verité. 

As Klett continued to discuss forced labor in the apparel sector, she clarified that 18 workers, two-thirds of them male, were interviewed. 

“Because it’s a migrant workforce,” she said, “you see a lot of the same vulnerabilities as in the electronics sector,” although she still mentioned its differences. Its top forced labor risks included fees and debt, deception of recruitment, excessive overtime and no ability to terminate contracts.

By “deception of recruitment,” Klett refers to deceit about job type and, again, salary. Furthermore, many workers experienced withheld wages, in which employees were told their wages would arrive “later” or at the end of their contract.

“We were able to share through our research that there were clearly multiple risk factors present in this population for forced labor,” she announced. “[The study] helped with active conversations that were happening at the time.”

The results of this study led to United Nations (UN) briefing meetings with the Minister of Labor of Mauritius and the US DOL, as well as bilateral US-Mauritius dialogue. Adjustments of UN strategy increasing focus on forced labor in Mauritius also occurred. In Dec. 2023, an investigative report by NGO Transparentem was published about this issue in Mauritius.

When addressing college students, of which the Dogwood Room hosted a considerable crowd, Klett looks to evoke the desire to learn more about the business of human rights. Through sources like nonprofits and government positions, she elaborates on countless ways to start working on these problems.

“I would hope that students would have more curiosity and awareness [about] where all the stuff we buy and consume comes from,” she described, “and have some ideas about what companies should be doing.” 

A question-and-answer session emerged at the conclusion of Klett’s talk. Throughout the presentation, guests were invited to submit questions through using a provided code. Despite this effort, a substantial number of students departed once her speech was finalized.

Nonetheless, Klett received numerous, thought-provoking questions from both students and faculty. One question pondered the difference between extreme exploitation and forced labor, in which Klett stated that forced labor is an extreme kind of exploitation, one that involves involuntariness and coercion. Moreover, she explained that employers often exploit the desperation of their employees with no other option. 

“They can’t leave the job but not because they’re trapped by any employer directly, but because of their circumstance,” she said. 

A succeeding question asked the speaker about the authority required by researchers to conduct social audits. Klett clarified that organizations can only perform audits if granted permission by a multinational company. She added that she often performs them in places where people naturally congregate, such as community centers or shopping malls, to reach people in more comfortable settings outside of their workplace. 

A final conversation poked the issue of government responsibility, particularly that of the United States. According to Klett, the US government is behind Europe’s in terms of instituting policy, however, the United States made steps by implementing an import ban. 

“Strengthening government ability to create strong laws and enforce them is really key, and track data on where the problems might be,” she announced, continuing that these efforts require investment in costs and resources. Simply stated, many countries do not obtain the resources to successfully enforce labor laws, so recognizing that a larger ecosystem of factors is crucial for establishing change.

Klett contended that social responsibility has evolved immensely, yet is still only at its beginning. At the college level, she acknowledges that evolution is being brought to life through courses like economics and applied ethics.

The researcher informs that, despite its global context, Fairfield University students are more than capable of taking action against forced labor. Aside from simply paying attention to the brands one is buying, Klett encourages students to “just do a little bit of research.” Many company sites include their utilized practices as well as Modern Slavery Statements, which have become required by many large corporations.

Essentially, an emphasis lies on making educated decisions, to which Klett highlights the fast-fashion outlet Shein. “Another thing just to think about, is like, ‘Do I think that the cost of this item is enough that people got paid at a fair wage to make it?’”

Encouraging students to apply for summer, fall and spring internships at Verité, Klett emphasized the significance of working in the business of human rights. Her incentive? “We need good people.”

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