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Wages: An Overlooked Dimension of Business and Human Rights in Global Supply Chains

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 January 2021


Wages – the monetary payments that workers receive from employers in exchange for their labour – are widely overlooked in academic and policy debates about human rights and business in global supply chains. They shouldn’t be. Just as living wages can insulate workers from human rights abuse and labour exploitation, wages that hover around or below the poverty line, compounded by illegal practices like wage theft and delayed payment, leave workers vulnerable to severe labour exploitation and human rights abuse. This article draws on data from a study of global tea and cocoa supply chains to explore the impact of wages on one of the most severe human rights abuses experienced in global supply chains, forced labour. Demonstrating that low-wage workers experience high vulnerability to forced labour in global supply chains, it argues that the role of wages in shaping or protecting workers from exploitation needs to be taken far more seriously by scholars and policymakers. When wages are ignored, so too is a crucial tool to protect human rights and heighten business accountability in global supply chains.

Scholarly Article
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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Conflicts of interest: The author declares none.


Genevieve LeBaron is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, UK. Her research focuses on the business and governance of forced labour in global supply chains. She was elected to the College of the Royal Society of Canada in 2020.

This article draws on data collected under my UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant, The Global Business of Forced Labour (ES/N001192/1); I am grateful to the ESRC for research funding. Field research for that project was supported by a research team including E. Gore, D. Ottie-Boakye, O. Afrane Obed, P. Ekka, H. Babu, A. Kumar, R. Goswami, M. Rahman, H. Sarkar, N. Howard, P. Roberts, V. Ampiah and J. Nyarko. Additional assistance with this article was given by Remi Edwards. I am grateful to these colleagues for their work.


1 Search conducted 16 October 2020 on Business and Human Rights Journal website,

2 Forced Labour Convention, International Labour Organisation No. 29 (adopted on 28 June 1930, entered into force 1 May 1932), art 2.

3 For an overview of forced labour in contemporary global supply chains, see LeBaron, Genevieve et al., Confronting Root Causes: Forced Labour in Global Supply Chains (Sheffield and London: Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute and openDemcoracy, 2018), (accessed 30 October 2020)Google Scholar.

4 This article draws on and extends analysis from within a preliminary working paper version of the project findings: LeBaron, Genevieve, The Global Business of Forced Labour: Report of Findings (Sheffield: SPERI & University of Sheffield, 2018).Google Scholar

5 See for instance: UK Government, ‘UK Government Modern Slavery Statement’ (18 March 2020), (accessed 2 December 2020); Bowe, John, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (New York: Random House, 2007)Google Scholar; Bales, Kevin and Soodalter, Ron, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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8 See also LeBaron, Genevieve and Crane, Andrew, ‘Methodological Challenges in the Business of Forced Labour’ in LeBaron, Genevieve (ed.), Researching Forced Labour in the Global Economy: Methodological Challenges and Advances (Oxford: Oxford University of Press, 2018) 25 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crane, Andrew, ‘Modern Slavery as a Management Practice: Exploring the Conditions and Capabilities for Human Exploitation’ (2013) 38:1 Academy of Management Review 49 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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10 Bales, note 9, 5.

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18 See, for instance, End Slavery Now, ‘The “Chocolate Slaves” of the Ivory Coast’, (accessed 2 December 2020).

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20 For information on this project, see

21 LeBaron, note 4.

22 Bowe, note 5; Bales and Soodalter, note 5.

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24 Tea workers 1 and 30.

25 Tea worker 1.

26 Tea worker 4.

27 Tea worker 45.

28 Manager 3.

29 Tea worker 5.

30 Tea worker 55

31 Tea worker 42.

32 Cocoa worker 42

33 Cocoa workers 7 and 50.

34 Cocoa worker 2.

35 Cocoa worker 36.

36 Cocoa worker 61.

37 Cocoa worker 47.

38 Tea worker 28.

39 LeBaron, note 4.

40 Estate owner 1.

41 LeBaron, note 39.

42 See Tea Board of India, ‘Month Wise Prices of All Tea at Indian Auctions’, (accessed 2 December 2020).

43 Cocoa seller 2.

44 Trading Economics, ‘Cocoa’, (accessed 2 December 2020).

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58 See also LeBaron, Genevieve, ‘Reconceptualizing Debt Bondage: Debt as a Class-Based Form of Labor Discipline’ (2014) 40:5 Critical Sociology 763 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.