Worker exploitation is extremely common worldwide, and its prevalence has only been exacerbated by the arrival of COVID-19. During the pandemic, many adjustments were imposed to accommodate the new “normal” and one of the biggest changes has been within our work environment. Many of these changes have put people in unfair and difficult situations, including being forced to work extra hours, accept lower wages, and compromise for worse working conditions. As such, it is crucial to understand what can be considered exploitation and how worker exploitation takes place.

Worker or labour exploitation refers to situations where employees are made to work under unfair and/or unfavourable conditions. These workers are forced to comply, often working for long hours in hazardous environments with little to no pay, which can be accompanied by threat of punishment if they decide to look for better opportunities or voice their concerns about safety. In 2016, it was estimated that 24.9 million people worldwide were participating in forced labour – with 16 million exploited in the private sector, 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million in state-imposed forced labour. While these issues may seem distant and far away for many of us, in reality, there are many cases of worker exploitation that are much closer than we know.

In Canada, over 1,708 incidents of human trafficking have been reported, which is commonly associated with labour or sexual exploitation. Of these incidents, young migrant workers are the most susceptible and vulnerable groups, making up a large percentage of exploited individuals – 28% fall under the age of 18, while 45% fall between the ages of 18 to 24. These statistics only report incidents that are brought to police attention, suggesting a much larger and deeper system of exploitation. A report from United Food and Commercial Workers Canada revealed that migrant workers are in fact the most common group to be targeted in Canada. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising, given that many migrant workers experience barriers in seeking help. A vast number of workers keep problems to themselves for fear of receiving punishment, after which the workers could be “sent packing”. In 2019, a human trafficking case was discovered in Barrie involving 43 Mexican workers who worked as cleaners at hotels. Paid less than $50 a month, with that pay being controlled, they were forced to live in unsanitary conditions without hot water or medical access, and were kept under false promises of opportunities for fair work. While the Ontario government is implementing legislation and procedures to monitor these cases of worker exploitation, these cases offer only a small glimpse into the exploitation that takes place and will require time and concerted effort to fully eradicate.

Modern slavery continues to this day, albeit disguised in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This amendment abolished all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of a crime. Unfortunately, this loophole has been exploited to take advantage of incarcerated individuals who have become prime targets for worker exploitation. For example, during California’s wildfires in 2018, the state employed prisoners to combat fires, where they were given “the toughest assignments” with little to no formal training. These inmates carried out 24-hour shifts and were compensated at only $1 an hour. They combatted the fire alongside salaried firefighters, who instead earn an annual wage of $74,000. In Texas, prisoners are forced to participate in all forms of production, including farm work, clothing manufacturing, and facilities maintenance. These prisoners are forced to work for free for upwards of 12 hours a day, where refusal leads to punishment and longer incarcerations. While difficult to believe, it is an unfortunate truth that prison labour remains one of the most prominent and abused forms of labour exploitation worldwide.

Worker exploitation occurs in other countries beyond North America, with the shared goal of exploiting prisoners in an attempt to keep production costs low. In China, prisoners are infamously forced to peel garlic which is supplied to Jinxiang, responsible for 80% of the world’s garlic export. Forced to work from 5 AM to 9 PM, these prisoners are also key manufacturers of goods such as handbags and washing machines. Similarly, in Angola, inmates perform labour in multiple sectors, ranging from Victoria’s Secret undergarments to military weapons, and refusal to cooperate can lead to solitary confinement. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the kafala sponsorship system requires a migrant worker to have a local sponsor, who is subsequently responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status. This system gives employers massive control over employees, and has resulted in numerous cases of workers becoming trapped, isolated, and unable to escape the harsh and cruel conditions imposed by their employer. While overwork is the most common complaint in the kafala system, more extreme cases of abuse have been reported, including food deprivation, sexual and psychological abuse, and physical punishment. Currently, some steps are being taken to restore rights for these migrant workers and hold perpetrators accountable.

Given the global state of worker exploitation, one may wonder how COVID-19 has impacted this problem. Unfortunately, populations that are marginalized and experience discrimination have suffered more acutely during the pandemic, and are also commonly targeted by those seeking to exploit workers. Furthermore, many workers do not have the luxury of being able to work from home or in COVID-safe conditions. Combining these pressures with pre-existing systems of worker exploitation leads to a widening of the already disproportionate power imbalances between the employed and their employers.

In Canada, over 30% of surveyed migrant workers reported losing their jobs, and of those who did manage to keep their jobs, nearly half had to work for extended hours. Furthermore, more than 40% of those surveyed were not paid for these extra hours, with many describing underlying racism taking place in their workplaces, and being treated as vectors of disease.

In the United States, given the shortages of labour that accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak, many industries once again turned towards prison and immigrant labour to cut costs. For example, Russell Stover utilized prison labour to man the production lines, where workers are paid $14 an hour with no time off, and 25% of the pay is deducted for room and board. Due to surge in global demand, inmates have also been recruited to produce face masks and hand sanitizer — an ironic situation considering the poor sanitary conditions that prisoners experience.

Given the difficulty of detection and general unwillingness for victims to report, the elimination of worker exploitation is a massive and difficult issue that must be addressed. Governments are actively targeting these dishonest employment practices, and in cooperation with organizations such as the International Labour Organization, are dedicated towards reducing and ultimately eliminating these forms of worker exploitation to ensure all workers are operating freely and without vulnerability.



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Martin Mak

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