Not a moving target: the responsibility to respect human rights in the transport and logistics sector

European Mobility Atlas 2021

Transport makes a significant contribution to global employment and provides economic opportunities for millions across the world, acting as a key enabler for trade, manufacturing and mobility. In Europe alone, the transport industry directly employs around 10 million people.[1] However, the human costs of transport – both present and future – cannot be ignored.[2] With global expansion, technological progress and consumer expectations on flexibility and responsiveness, exploitative working conditions have flourished.[3] Beyond the threat to direct employees, other, often covert, risks emerge in transport supply chains, including forced labour and human trafficking, land appropriation, bribery, and corruption. The 2021 Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these risks and brought into focus new impacts on the sector’s most vulnerable workers.

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Forced labour

The transport and logistics sector relies on large, low-skilled workforces and often uses recruitment and employment companies to crew their fleets and terminals with domestic and foreign migrants. These companies, particularly in poorer or informal contexts, are driven by very low margins and can be unscrupulous in recruiting workers. Abusive practices include illegal recruitment fees, the withholding of wages and passport confiscation. Excluded from labour law protections in some countries and without the necessary language skills, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Covid-19 has pushed millions more into unemployment, underemployment and poverty, which are all key drivers of forced labour, and will continue to do so.[4]

The prevalence of forced labour is higher in certain sub-sectors of the transport and logistics value chain, such as in the global shipping industry, where seafarers are often migrant and at sea for long periods of time, warehousing and terminals, which are prone to peak periods and workforce seasonality, and in trucking, where the use of subcontracting is common.

Furthermore, the issue is not exclusive to high-risk regions: in recent years, Europe has seen various cases of forced labour, such as the recent cases of deceived Filipino drivers[5] in Europe and North Korean labourers discovered in slave-like conditions in a Polish shipbuilding yard.[6] A number of practices, for example the hiring of workforce supplied by logistics companies, may also exacerbate the risk of forced labour. Proper vetting of labour agencies is critical to mitigating exploitation across the sector.

Human Trafficking

The same transport networks that move goods and passengers often intersect with human trafficking rings. While human trafficking can be domestic, requiring little or no transportation, it is often a transnational process. Aviation, shipping and trucking companies can all be implicated, knowingly or unknowingly. Traffickers will use airlines, trains and roads to transport victims during their recruitment and at later stages. While the pandemic has slowed the flow of international travel, the suspension of regular migration channels, combined with the financial precariousness of millions of families, is likely to result in higher rates of irregular migration, including an uptick in human trafficking. On the flip side, transport companies can be key partners in mitigating the risk of human trafficking. By gaining a thorough understanding of the local trafficking context and collaborating with a wide range of other stakeholders, companies can help to ensure that their own operations do not contribute to these violations.[7]

Land rights, bribery and corruption

Infrastructure is crucial to transport: roads, ports, canals and other transport networks are often built by third parties and government-funded ventures. These projects should be developed in consultation with local communities and adequate compensation for expropriated land provided; however, this is not always the case, for example with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.[8] Corrupt contexts and government officials can exacerbate these risks, with petty corruption and facilitation payments still endemic at customs checkpoints and port terminals. These are inherently human rights violations, as they skew government attention and resources away from the needs of the people they are entrusted to serve. While sectoral initiatives have had success in tackling bribery and corruption in the sector, the issue persists.[9]  

Right to health and safety, work, and adequate standard of living

The primary and most visible risk from the current global pandemic has been the transmission of the Covid-19 disease, potentially affecting the safety, well-being and health of workers, contractors and other rights-holders. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been stranded at sea,[10] forbidden to disembark because of local Covid-19 restrictions, severely impacted with regard to their physical and mental health, and unable to return to their families and homes.

Beyond health and safety risks, the pandemic has also given rise to other human rights challenges for the sector, calling into focus the right to work and to an adequate standard of living. With the transportation and logistics sector heavily – albeit unevenly – impacted by Covid-19, some workers and contractors have lost salaries, benefits and jobs. Furloughs and dismissals may have limited employees’ and their families’ access to health insurance schemes and ability to earn a decent income. In contrast, other workers – in particular in the road transport, seafaring and logistics industries – may have been forced to work excessive hours, accept unpaid overtime and/or live in crowded dormitories or accommodation, well-known vectors for Covid-19 transmission. In all cases, these changes can have a serious impact on workers’ right to an adequate standard of living.

In the context of the tenth anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs),[11] companies should adopt adequate measures to respect human rights in concert with governmental action to introduce law and enforcement measures to protect them.

While much legislation is national, European rules exist to ensure decent conditions for workers in the transportation and logistics sector. Mandated sectoral working times vary for air, rail, shipping and road industries and are set out in a range of Directives.[12] Regarding road transportation, for example, EU rules on cabotage, posted workers and rest time for drivers aim to prevent exploitation, though gaps in enforcement may leave room for abuse.[13] While not specific to the sector, the EU has implemented a series of policies and frameworks against corruption, including the 1997 Convention on fighting corruption involving officials of the EU and the 2003 Framework Decision on combating corruption in the private sector. Both instruments aim to criminalize active and passive bribery.[14] Crucial to watch are the current EU plans to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. The proposed directive will require business entities - including many in the transport and logistics sector - to assess, prioritize and mitigate potential and actual human rights and environmental risks.[15]

Other international instruments exist to protect the human rights of affected rights holders, such as the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (2006). The EU has transposed large parts of the Convention in its legislation despite not being party to the ILO or to the Convention itself. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises provide a standard for responsible business conduct.[16] However, these alone will not be sufficient to tackle transnational, and often hidden, risks: transport companies need to assess their risks and put in place adequate strategies to respect human rights while at the same time enabling trade.

As technology transforms the way the sector operates, companies need to equip their workforces with new skills to ensure a humane transition for its workers and to prevent forced labour, human trafficking and other violations from multiplying. A human rights approach here will support inclusive actions. Collaboration will also be key. Individual companies, sector initiatives[17] and legislators need to come together to ensure that competition in the sector does not come at the expense of workers.


 [1] In Europe alone, the transport industry directly employs around 10 million people. For more information, see European Commission, Transport sector economic analysis,

[2] Human rights risks and opportunities in the Transport and Logistics sector were described earlier by BSR in this primer:

[3] See, for example, the conditions of drivers across Europe in VNB Engels, ‘Road Transport, Automotive Supply Chain: Reality and Solution’,

[4] Alliance 8.7, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Modern Slavery’,

[5] Construction for the China-Laos railway has displaced thousands of communities, many of whom have not received adequate compensation. See Belt & Road News, ‘China-Laos Railway marred by compensation issues and pollution’, 12 June 2019,

[6] See, for example, the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN), which has brought together more than 130 companies to build an industry free of corruption that enables fair trade to benefit society at large. For more details about the initiative, see

[8] OHCHR, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 2011,

[9] For air transportation, see EU Directive 2000/79/EC; conditions for the rail industry are defined by Directive 2005/47/EC; those for seafarers can be found in Directive 1999/63/EC; and Directive 2002/15/EC sets the framework for the organization of working time for workers in road transport activities.  

[10] For EU cabotage rules, see Regulation 1072/2009; for rules on posting workers, see Directive 2018/957/EU amending Directive 96/71/EC; concerning the posting of workers in the framework of the provision of services, and for rules on driving and rest, consult Regulation 561/2006.

[11] See Council Framework Decision 2003/568 on combating corruption in the private sector and the Convention on the fight against corruption involving officials of the European Communities or officials of Member States of the European Union.

[12] For more details, see “The Future of Human Rights Due Diligence: Legislation and Regulation for a Level Playing Field”, at

[13] The OECD requires that all OECD members and adhering governments establish a functioning National Contact Point (NCP) to promote the guidelines and to handle cases as a non-judicial grievance mechanism. For more information, see  Social provisions exist for workers in the transport and logistics sector. For road transport, there are specific rules relating to cabotage (Regulation 1072/2009), posting workers (Directive 2018/957/EU), and driving and rest (Regulation 561/2006.); Directive 1999/63/EC regulates conditions for seafarers and Directive 2000/79/EC sets out minimum standards for workers in the aviation sector.

[14] For more details on BSR’s collaboration efforts, see