By Olly Buston and Peter Nicholls

Many people think that slavery ended with the demise of the barbaric trans-Atlantic trade 150 years ago. But modern forms of slavery still exist. According to the Global Slavery Index, an estimated 35.8m people are victims of forced labour, human trafficking or debt bondage, more than at any other moment in history. That’s 35.8m people who are more or less completely controlled by another for their use or profit. An astonishing two thirds of these people live in the Brics economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, with 14m people living in slavery in India alone.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that $150bn of illegal profits are generated each year by the use of modern slavery worldwide. One third is made through forced labour. The reality is that slavery exists in the supply chains of many of the products that we consume. This means consumer pressure has a major role to play in defeating this terrible crime. Read more

In the aftermath and shock of the Rana Plaza disaster, in which more than 1,100 people died, many promises were made. Yet the Bangladesh government has been lethargic and its promises of action on factory safety and labour relations have hit familiar walls. Foreign powers, meanwhile, have produced contrasting responses. Read more

Alexander Lukashenko is living up to his reputation as Europe’s last remaining dictator. The president of Belarus has decided to bring back serfdom on farms in a bid to stop urban migration.

Lukashenko has announced plans to introduce legislation prohibiting farm labourers from quitting their jobs and moving to the cities. “Yesterday, a decree was put on my table concerning – we are speaking bluntly – serfdom,” the Belarus leader told a meeting on Tuesday to discuss improvements to livestock farming, reported. Read more

South Africa’s upstart miners’ trade union, Amcu, is starting 2014 with a bang.

Not content with becoming the recognised union over the older, more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), it is looking to pull off the impressive feat of organising strikes at South Africa’s three biggest platinum companies – Lonmin, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), and Impala Platinum (Implats). That’s a combined 70,000 workers. And, more importantly, around two-thirds of the world’s platinum output. Read more

It’s all looking up for the US this week. New figures show manufacturing activity is growing at its fastest pace since April 2011. Analysts have braced themselves for better than expected jobs data on Friday. Oh – and Indian IT outsourcing companies are funnelling money into the country. Read more

By Nguyen Van Phu of the Saigon Economic Times

Activists in Vietnam fight tenaciously for many things. They’ve advocated land ownership for farmers, equal footing for the state-owned and private sectors and the suspension of a costly bauxite project that is neither financially viable nor environmentally friendly. And yet, they have never raised their voices against the dark sides of free trade agreements as have their peers in other developing countries. Read more

For BMW in South Africa, genug ist genug.

Strikes are a fact of life for many companies in Africa’s largest economy but last week German carmaker BMW said that wage disputes had gone too far and cancelled plans to ramp up production at its Rosslyn plant. The response from the union? BMW is “blackmailing” the country. Read more

It has been a while since South African manufacturers have had much to cheer about as they have endured rising costs, increasing competition and the economic crisis in Europe, their main market. But as the rand has been trading at four-year lows against the dollar for much of the year, it seems they may finally be getting a lift. Read more

Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa’s deputy president, on Friday unveiled a draft agreement for sustainable mining – a government attempt to bring some stability to the sector. It’s about time. In recent weeks, the unions have been making a lot of noise about strikes.

But in the past few days it has been the turn of the mining companies to put their point across, and threaten job cuts. Read more

After that ad, and a drop in profits, some good news for Hyundai. To the relief of many investors, the labour union has ended its seven-week dispute with the company over weekend work.

The 45,000-strong union will resume their overtime work from this weekend after refusing it for the past eight weekends, demanding higher wages. The temporary work stoppage cost the company more than Won1tn ($900m) in production losses. Read more

By Ifty Islam of Asian Tiger Capital Partners

The collapse of Rana Plaza, the eight-storey building housing garment factories in Savar, near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has seen more than 300 killed and over 1200 injured, with many hundreds still missing.

Coming only five months after 111 deaths in an earlier factory fire, the overwhelming sentiment in Bangladesh has gone from shock to moral outrage about the scant regard for human life among the factory owners. There have been violent protests across Dhaka by thousands of enraged garment factory workers. Read more

South Korean companies are facing growing public pressure to convert contract workers to permanent staff amid increasing calls for a so-called “economic democratisation,” which is likely to improve workers’ conditions at the price of increasing employers’ costs.

The latest response to this pressure came from E-Mart, the country’s biggest supermarket chain, which said last week it would convert 10,000 temporary salespeople to regular staff from April 1. Read more

Higher wages and rising labour costs lie at the heart of the economic questions facing China’s leaders as they gather this week in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.

For hard-pressed exporters the developments are clearly negative. But for China as a whole they should be positive -with millions of workers earnings more pay and creating a growing consumer market – as long as the transition is managed properly. Read more

Huawei, the Chinese telecoms group, is the latest international investor to feel the brunt of Indonesia’s increasingly vocal trade union movement.

Union activists and current and former employees have launched a campaign against what they say is Huawei’s use of illegal foreign workers, its union busting practices and other alleged violations of Indonesia’s tough labour laws. Read more

Saudi Basic Industries Corp, Saudi Arabia’s biggest publicly-traded company, has a very non-Saudi problem: striking workers.

The Riyadh-based petrochemicals behemoth is facing the wrath of the labour unions – not at home in the kingdom where such groups are banned but at its Chemicals Geleen plant in the Netherlands. Read more

Foxconn, the contract manufacturer whose biggest customer is Apple, is preparing genuinely representative labour union elections in its factories in China for the first time, a powerful sign of the changes in the workshop of the world demanded by an increasingly restive workforce.

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By Marcos Troyjo of Columbia University

The timid expansion of Brazil’s GDP in the past 12 months at under 1 per cent deals a hard blow to the notion that its policy makers had devised an economic model uniting high growth with social inclusion. This sweet dream is over. It is wrong to assume that the set of policies Brazil has put in place in the past few years to boost its economy and upgrade its social data are pillars of a new development model. Read more

Leaders of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on Monday pledged to try to stabilise labour relations in the troubled industry.

But Frans Baleni, general secretary, and Senzeni Zokwana, president, told beyondbrics they could not give investors “guarantees” that there would be no resurgence of the strikes that caused so much disruption this year. Read more

The State Grid Corporation of China has made a public protest over recent moves to cancel visas and work permits for 28 of its technical staff in the Philippines, where it owns a big chunk of the power transmission operating company.

It’s not entirely clear what’s behind Manila’s actions. But energy officials are keen to ensure that control over power grid operations is in the hands of Philippine rather than Chinese nationals. Read more

Bangladesh is widely known as significant exporter of garments to major Western brands in Europe and the US. Less noticed has been the rapid growth of its leather industry, which last year exported around $663m worth of leather and leather products to Italy, Spain, Germany, China, South Korea and Japan.

But global importers sourcing leather from Bangladesh for handbags, shoes and jackets are running the risk of a severe blow to their reputation, with a human rights group now training its sights on abuses by the country’s unregulated export-oriented leather industry. Read more