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Climate-induced labour: why brands should be thinking about climate migrants

Posted on 7 March 2022

With the rise of the "eco-friendly" or "ethical" consumer, many of us are making more conscious choices about what products we buy and where we buy them from. In equal measure, brands are becoming more aware of consumer habits in this regard, with many launching, for example, targeted green initiatives, such as upcycling their own products or launching entirely sustainable product lines. Indeed, the "Great Fashion for Climate Action" show was exhibited at COP26 in November of last year, with a number of global brands displaying their various sustainability innovations to the public.

However, one aspect of the push for more socially conscious purchasing habits that is commonly lost on both consumers and brands is the role and exploitation of vulnerable workers in global supply chains. The ever-increasing number of communities displaced by the effects of climate change and extreme weather events is concerning, but their transition into often oppressive systems of forced labour and exploitation represents a real danger for brands wishing to operate in a more equitable and sustainable way.

'Climate migrants' – the scale of the issue

The driving factors that underpin migration, particularly in already vulnerable areas, are multifaceted. To this end, identifying with any precision the number of climate migrants displaced in any year is by definition an impossible task. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, however, collates data on individuals displaced by disasters and conflicts in territories around the globe, and is often used as a reference point in attempts to scale the impact of our changing climate on migration patterns.

The statistics are bleak. At the end of 2020, there were 40.5 million new displacements, with many coming from territories where issues of forced labour and modern slavery are rife. For example, in Bangladesh, there were 4,443,000 new displacements, whilst in India there were 3,856,000 new displacements. Exploitation has been found to be channelled by climate induced migration in three main ways:

  • Immediately after the impact of sudden disasters, where coercion and desperation are induced among affected communities;
  • Throughout the duration of slow onset climate events and disasters; and
  • Slow onset climate events that exacerbate and bring about other risk factors like armed conflict.

What is particularly striking about such statistics is that displacement appears to be happening and growing in scale in the territories of some of the world's largest and most important exporters. The table below demonstrates this synergy:

Country Key exports Number of new displacements
Bangladesh Ready-made garments 4,443,000
India Petroleum oils and products 3,856,000
Vietnam Electrical equipment and machinery 1,267,000
Pakistan Linens and textiles 829,000
Indonesia Palm oil 705,000
Brazil Soybeans and crude oil 358,000
Democratic Republic of Congo Petroleum products and, increasingly, cobalt 279,000

What does exploitation look like?

Unfortunately, those communities and individuals who are most at risk of displacement are often coerced into forced work via a multiplicity of techniques. A common example of this involves the use of debt bondage. Here, individuals are exploited for their labour as a means of security against an opaque form of debt, whose amount and terms of repayment are often unspecified to ensure the continuing and persistent enslavement of the affected individual. Another tragic reality is the illegal and illegitimate use of child labour, particularly in areas where poverty is high, and education and educational resources for young people are often underfunded or under prioritised by the territory in question.

The situation is compounded by a lack of legislative cohesion in addressing the issues faced by those in oppressive working environments, including climate migrants. As Mishcon's Climate Migration Project have already noted, climate migrants are not recognised in any binding international treaty, nor is there an international body that is responsible for identifying, monitoring and ensuring the protection of these individuals. To the extent that it is already difficult to track those at risk of modern slavery or forced labour, climate-induced displacement adds another layer of complexity to this exercise in identification.

A second layer of hardship is faced at the domestic level, where certain affected countries have not yet developed sophisticated legal frameworks to prevent, for example, forced labour situations. An example of this is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour has been a prevalent topic in recent years, partly owing to the country's compulsory education age which falls below international standards.

Solutions moving forward

As Alex Randall, Programme Lead at the Climate and Migration Coalition, discussed in our recent podcast, addressing the practical issues faced by climate migrants cannot successfully be pursued by adopting a one-dimensional approach. Instead, there will have to be a 'patchwork' of different policies, initiatives and ideas that will have to be implemented to tackle these problems and root issues head on, both in the private and public spheres. For example, these could include:

  • Emphasising existing policy and legal frameworks – whilst binding international consensus on how to deal with the plight of climate migrants has yet to be achieved, there are existing frameworks that can provide a guiding hand for states who will need to address these issues moving forward. This includes the UN's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which outlines that internally displaced persons (encompassing the majority of climate migrants) "shall not be discriminated against in the enjoyment of any rights and freedoms on the ground that they are internally displaced" and that they will "… enjoy, in full equality, the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as do other persons in their country". Similarly, the Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led initiative working towards better protection for people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate change. By collaborating more closely with other member states, there is hope that the Platform can look to fill some of the policy and data lacunas that have pervaded the climate migration debate in recent times.
  • Adopting preventative measures and 'planned' migration – one of the main talking points at COP26 was the issue of "loss and damage". Generally speaking, this is the idea that smaller and more vulnerable states who have done little to contribute to the disastrous effects of climate change should be compensated for the damage and toll that they have suffered by richer and more polluting countries. To the extent that a workable loss and damage compensation facility is established in the coming years, the funding from this could be used to ensure that communities who are vulnerable to climate-induced displacement are better able to prevent and pre-empt the effects of climate related disasters in their territories. Some countries, including Bangladesh, have already taken it upon themselves to institute such preventative measures, including pre-emptive evacuations in light of upcoming tropical storms and monsoons that have a devastating impact on local communities.  
  • Utilising technology solutions – a good example of tech innovation that some companies are using to address issues in their supply chains is the process known as "geo-mapping". This involves using spatial mapping tools to provide and share critical, and often real time, data surrounding human rights risks and practical developments on the ground in regional markets. This provides businesses with an avenue to ensure accountability in reaching their sustainability goals, but also allows them to more effectively project the development and progression of human rights standards in their supply chains on a more incremental basis.

Given that global climate patterns are becoming more extreme and, by extension, the risk of climate-linked displacement is becoming a stark prospect for many, it is time for consumers and businesses alike to start thinking about how this reality has a potential to play out on our high street shelves. Because so much of the climate migration question today is based around the difficulty of even establishing recognition of the issue itself, it is even more important for brands to be alive to the possibility of exploitation and discrimination of these communities in their supply chains and regions of influence.

If you are interested in this area, and would like to hear more about the issue of climate migration, listen here to our introductory podcast on the topic.

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