According to War on Want, the development charity, there is something that can be done. A research paper by the company, Invest in Freedom, suggests people in Britain have a weapon - their occupational pension funds.
British employees have pounds 450bn of pension money invested in the stock market. Much of it ends up overseas, either through multinational corporations or, increasingly, through direct investment in so-called emerging markets.
Governments are so desperate to attract these multinationals that they often leave their own citizens open to abuse. Yet multinationals are themselves dependent on their investors, who could use their votes at a company's annual general meeting in favour of basic employment rights.
War on Want is calling on pension scheme members to present its document, Charter for Fair Employment, to their trustees. The document backs the right of employees to be free of enforced or bonded labour, discrimination, oppressive or dangerous working conditions, and to be able to organise as a union. Margaret Lynch, a director of War on Want, stresses she is not calling for a boycott of offending companies. Research in Bangladesh shows workers there want the factories to stay - they just want improved conditions.
The question is, will it work? To have some positive effect such a campaign must have some sort of public mandate. If opinion polls are to be believed, this may be the case. Most surveys over the past five years have indicated a willingness by those polled to pay higher taxes to support social spending.
Many lawyers, like much of the pensions industry, claim that reluctance to act is caused by the fact that a trustee's primary duty is to act in the best financial interests of all a fund's beneficiaries, including present retirees and future members. It is not the trustees' place, say the lawyers, to shilly-shally around with politics and morality; ethics can only be taken into consideration where two morally differing investment alternatives have exactly the same financial prospects.
Yet oft-cited case law relates to politically motivated investment boycotts, not shareholder action or corporate governance, areas which remain legally untested. If trustees were to be sued over voting, a plaintiff would have to argue that the fund's financial interests had been damaged. Given the long-term investment horizon of pension funds, this would be hard to do.
In fact, as Stuart Bell, researcher with the Pensions Investment Research Council, says, a moral attitude often means money in the pocket: "A company's profile is of value to it, particularly if it has a consumer base," he says. "Shell's activities in Nigeria were really affecting its share price."
Robin Ellison, head of pensions at Eversheds, the law firm, points to factors such as the US legal requirement for a pension fund to treat its voting right as an asset and to use it, plus two UK reports on corporate governance, as signs of change in this direction.
The 1995 Pensions Act insists on a formal investment policy. According to the Goode Report on which it is based, that policy could include ethics, "so long as [the trustees] treat the interests of beneficiaries as paramount," and act with care and prudence.
The problem, then, is not so much legal barriers as the fact that much of the industry has not caught up with sentiment and practice. For example, the National Association of Pension Funds' most recent council meeting rejected the campaign.
Pensions managers and trustees, for their part, are bewildered by the demands for ethical action that keep on crossing their desks. Post Office Pension scheme chief executive Michael Duncombe says: "I'll say the same to War on Want as to Islamic funds and ethical funds: it's impossible to run a pension fund like that and by law you don't have to." Similarly, Marks & Spencer has just ratified a policy to vote with the management of the companies it invests in.
Yet some funds and managers are more in touch. Friends Provident is considered the specialist in ethical investment. Richard Philipson, who devised its pooled pension versions, says: "There is a danger that by simply excluding investments you lose all potential influence." Friends Provident writes to companies and can sometimes get good and fairly quick results. .
Hermes, the telecommunications fund manager has its own corporate governance department; while big fund managers such as PDFM and Mercury Asset Management look carefully at corporate governance issues.
None of this will change the world overnight, but if the campaign prevents just a few of the more gruesome deaths and injuries commonly meted out to many Third World workers, War on Want may judge it to have been a success. Equally importantly, those of us with occupational pensions need not worry that our retirement income is being paid for with the blood of others less fortunate than ourselves.
War on Want, Steve Tibbett, tel 0171 620 1111; TUC, Joanne Seagers, tel 636 4030Reuse content