The Role of Gender Relations in Tackling Forced Labour in Supply Chains

13 November 2018
Research Innovation

Genevieve LeBaron  | Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield
Ellie Gore  | Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Sheffield

Women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to forced labour, but the role and significance of gender relations in shaping the dynamics and patterns of forced labour has been largely overlooked. In 2017, the International Labour Organization estimated that women and girls represent 58 per cent of victims of forced labour in the private economy, excluding the commercial sex industry. While research on forced labour in supply chains frequently mentions in passing the gender of victims, serious and sustained analysis of gender relations has tended to be limited to “feminized” industries like domestic labour and sex work.

Our recent research on forced labour in global cocoa supply chains suggests that understanding gender relations is essential to understanding forced labour in supply chains and informing policy solutions to it. Using case studies of the cocoa industry in Ghana and the tea industry in India, our study conducted extensive research into patterns of labour exploitation in these supply chains, including 120 interviews with tea and cocoa workers, a survey of over 1000 workers in both industries, and over 100 interviews with business and government actors.


Hands scooping cacao beans. Unsplash/Etty Fidele

As explained in more detail in the project’s Final Report, we found that there are three key patterns of labour exploitation experienced by cocoa workers in Ghana: underpayment and non-payment of wages; requirements to complete unpaid and involuntary labour as a condition of employment; and lending money to workers and charging high interest rates on loans. These forms of exploitation are surprisingly widespread: 23 per cent of cocoa workers in our study had carried out work they were not paid for, 60 per cent of cocoa workers in our study had gone into debt, and 55 per cent of cocoa workers in our study had no savings. Workers also reported physical and sexual violence, verbal abuse and threats, and food deprivation by employers. These conditions leave cocoa workers highly vulnerable to forced labour, which was experienced by several workers within our study.

Although cocoa production in Ghana relies on smallholder farms and has been traditionally seen as a “male crop,” our research finds that women are also extensively involved in cocoa farming. While the exploitation experienced by male and female cocoa workers was often similar, female workers’ exploitation was compounded by unequal gender relations and norms. Three trends help to explain this phenomenon.

First, we found that female cocoa workers are paid less than male cocoa workers. While all cocoa workers have extremely low incomes—an average of just over 5 GHS or $1.04 per day—our study found that female cocoa workers are earning even less than their male counterparts. For example, women carrying out cocoa farm caretaking work earn on average 4.41 GHS per day, or $0.92. This compares to an average of 6.45 GHS per day, or $1.35, for male workers performing the same role. The reasons for women’s lower earnings are complex and multifaceted. For instance, female workers are concentrated within lower paying cocoa farming activities; they are paid through male family members, who often take a cut; and employers make patriarchal assumptions that female workers will carry out the work less competently than male workers.

Second, we found that female cocoa workers are especially vulnerable to being cheated by employers, particularly if they are migrants. Female migrant workers experienced disproportionate vulnerability to underpayment and non-payment of wages that were closely correlated with experiences of forced labour, including debt bondage, within our study. The reasons for these forms of vulnerability are complex, and employers seem to, rightly, believe they have a better chance at getting away with mistreating female migrant workers as opposed to male or non-migrant workers. When we asked female workers how they responded to these types of unfair practices, they reported that they typically did nothing, since their position as women and as migrants made them effectively powerless to challenge abusive practices on the part of the farm owner.

Our recent research on forced labour in global cocoa supply chains suggests that understanding gender relations is essential to understanding forced labour in supply chains and informing policy solutions to it.

Third, we found that gender inequalities within households impact women’s experiences in the cocoa sector. Since women often work as “family labour”, that is, alongside male family members who are directly hired by the farm owner, they depend on male workers to give them their share of the wages or crop. As a result, female cocoa workers do not always receive an equitable portion of the earnings from their spouse or male family member. Moreover, women’s other household responsibilities , which include more subsistence-based activities such as fetching water, weeding and looking after other crops on the cocoa farm, mean that they have less time to dedicate to paid productive work in cocoa. These dynamics act as a powerful constraint on women’s earning power and increase their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

Our findings suggest that female workers’ experiences of, and vulnerability to, exploitation and forced labour cannot be understood in isolation from the broader gender relations at play in agriculture and the local context. Future research on forced labour in supply chains should pay attention not only to dynamics on a given worksite, but also to the gendered dynamics and inequalities within households and communities, since these may impact the patterns of forced labour. In turn, understanding gender relations is essential for creating solutions to forced labour in supply chains. If unequal gender dynamics constitute a root cause of vulnerability to forced labour, then these need to be tackled in policy frameworks and solutions.

Genevieve LeBaron is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Co-Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery. Follow her on twitter: @glebaron. Read more about her research: globalbusinessofforcedlabour.ac.uk

Ellie Gore is Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield. Follow her on twitter: @ellie_gore

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