The visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the UK is crystallising an unease about the state of working life. Work is fundamental to combating poverty. Yet, despite the employment rate remaining high, the UK is experiencing a worrying increase in the number of people who are in work but still in poverty, due to the growth of types of work that are unacceptable over the last decade.

The law plays an important role here. It can either sustain or discourage low-wage and insecure jobs. Ongoing litigation over the rights of Uber drivers – as to whether or not they are covered by employment laws – is a prominent example of the capacity of labour laws to protect or let down the modern workforce. Worse, the presence of forced labour in the UK shows the need for more effective laws to prevent the proliferation of modern slavery.

When it comes to tackling these and other unacceptable forms of work, there are lots of lessons that can be learned from around the world. This was evident from a project I recently led that brought together a network of researchers and policymakers from more than 20 countries called Unacceptable Forms of Work: Global Dialogue/Local Innovation.


We found that countries across the world often face similar challenges in regulating labour effectively. Outlined in our recent report, these include casual work in its range of guises (“day labour”, “zero hours contracts”, “on-call work” to name a few); forced labour; informal employment; the prevalence of violence and harassment in certain jobs and sectors, including in the care sector and in domestic work; and the weak enforcement of ostensibly robust labour standards.

Working conditions in different countries are exhibiting a degree of convergence due to the decline in job quality at the lower end of Western labour markets. Ongoing research in the garment sector in southern Africa, for example, highlights aspirations that are universal. Many of the most pressing concerns for workers here centre on work-life balance: accessible childcare, more flexible working arrangements, and cheap and swift transport to work.

Comparing problems in different regions is therefore useful, including with lower-income countries. It is valuable – and revealing – to ask whether lessons can be learned from the global south. And when it comes to having better regulation that might tackle these challenges, lessons from Brazil and India stand out.

Garment workers in Cape Town face the same issues as those in the West. Photo credit: Mlondolozi Mbolo

Combating forced labour in Brazil

Brazil offers an effective model for combating forced labour in supply chains, which is where this problem often gets hidden. In particular, smaller firms that are lower down the supply chain may cope with pressure to cut costs through resorting to forced labour.

As part of our project, a team led by Ann Posthuma at the UN’s International Labour Organisation and Flavia Scabin at Fundação Getulio Vargas university in São Paulo, argues that transparency can be achieved by combining innovative laws with novel labour inspection and civil society strategies. The team has seen this in action in Brazil.

Central is something called the lista suja or “dirty list”. This is a registry that publicly discloses the names of companies found to host forced labour in their supply chains. Firms on the dirty list are publicly shamed and risk being denied government funding and tax subsidies. A São Paulo state law goes further, banning companies that benefit from forced labour for up to ten years.

The transparency requirement in the UK Modern Slavery Act, in contrast, merely requires firms to publicise any actions they have taken to ensure that forced labour is not taking place in their supply chains. The UK – and other European countries – could learn from the more forceful approach adopted in Brazil, which also has a labour inspection framework that involves coordination with unions and employers’ organisations.

Gig economy lessons from India

Regulating casual work – sometimes characterised as “the gig economy” – is essential if in-work poverty is to be eliminated, since these jobs have variable and unpredictable incomes. In our project, Shelley Marshall from RMIT University, Melbourne, and Babu Ramesh from Ambedkar University Delhi illustrate how lessons can be learned from India and how Mathadi work in the state of Maharashtra is regulated.

Mathadi workers are labourers hired by transport companies to shift goods in ports and docks, market yards, and in retail – they tend to carry the goods on their heads and shoulders. It is gruelling work. Like “zero hours” workers, Mathadi workers have traditionally been excluded from the protections of labour law because they do not have a consistent employer and work on a “gig” basis.


Maharashtra enacted pioneering legislation – the Mathadi Act – back in 1969 to tackle both the oversupply of labour and worker exploitation. The law established Mathadi boards which combine representatives of workers, employers and the government. The boards themselves act as labour hire agencies: both workers and those hiring them must register with a board to operate in the industry. They also stipulate labour standards for Mathadi workers and provide them with social protection.

As Marshall has argued, the Mathadi Act offers a new way of thinking about regulating casual work – including by making space for dialogue between worker, employer and government representatives. This approach supports a more active and collaborative role for unions and employers or hirers.

Of course, different countries differ significantly in levels of socio-economic development, legal systems and labour market strategies. Yet there are clearly models from elsewhere that offer lessons in better regulating work, including from the global south.

If the UK government is serious about eliminating poverty and upholding the human rights of its citizens, it needs to update its laws to protect workers who are being exploited. As our report argues, this will require a degree of experimentation and the involvement of those who are affected by these laws. It is not enough to focus on high levels of employment if this work does not pay and poverty proliferates as a result.

Deirdre McCann, Professor of Law, Durham University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.