Tackling modern slavery in global supply chains

by Kevin Hyland OBE

11 Jul 2018

This is the first in a series of blogs from panellists who participated in a discussion on “Tackling Modern Slavery in Global Supply Chains”, held at the British Academy as part of its international funding programme Tackling Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour in Modern Business. This programme is supported by the UK’s Department for International Development.

As the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I have spent the past three years working hard to ensure our country plays its part in eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking. I am proud to have been a driving force in ensuring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include this issue, winning the support of the Pope for SDG 8.7 which aims to “eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour”. 

Private sector action is crucial to achieving this important goal: of the 25 million people estimated to be in forced labour worldwide, 16 million are estimated to be working within the private sector. Globalisation of supply chains, as companies site production in lower cost jurisdictions and workers migrate for better economic opportunities, has created a vulnerable workforce around the world. This is particularly true lower down in supply chains where there is less visibility. But while commercial activities can exacerbate vulnerability, they are also a potential lever for positive change. I have been pleased to see action taken by the private sector, from companies establishing trainings, whistleblowing schemes and supplier codes of conduct, to collective business forums advocating for decent labour standards. However, too often in my role as Commissioner, I have been told that solving forced labour in the private sector is ‘impossible’, particularly with regard to the Global South. It is not; rather, this is wilful blindness to the solutions needed. 

There are several areas in which the solutions needed are often ignored. Firstly, full supply chain visibility is often described as near impossible. It is hard, yes, and it requires resources and effort, but it is not impossible. Many businesses have begun mapping their supply chains down to the first or second tier which is good work, but this must be the start of a more comprehensive approach. Marshalls, the British FTSE 250 paving specialist, provides an effective counter-example: it has worked with NGO Hope for Justice to undertake detailed undercover human rights investigations within its Indian supply chain, right back to the source quarries. 

Secondly, businesses point to the problems of low labour protections in other countries. This may mean they are requesting labour standards which are beyond those mandated within the country in question. But again, levers do exist to change this. More companies should use their voice collectively, through trade associations and international coalitions, to advocate for improved labour protections. This should include pushing for more ratifications of the International Labour Organisation’s 2014 Protocol on Forced Labour, which speaks directly to SDG 8.7 by obliging signatories to develop national action plans against forced labour, to support victims, and promote due diligence by both public and private sectors. 

And while we wait for governments to act, businesses can ensure workers are able to protect themselves in the meantime. This means supporting worker-led organisations, such as trade unions, within business operations and supply chains. Of course, unions and business do not always see eye-to-eye but this does not have to be the case: worker-led organisations can be viewed as a partner in the fight against slavery and can actually take pressure off business. The Florida Fair Food Program provides an example of this: described by the Harvard Business Review as among the 'most important social impact success stories of the past century', the programme has been designed by the tomato-pickers themselves. After years of endemic exploitation, including slavery, sexual harassment and health and safety issues, the tomato-pickers created a ‘code of conduct’. Through peer-to-peer education, they ensure all workers know the details of the code and can report grievances to a 24-hour hotline. Global brands, such as Walmart, Burger King and McDonald’s have signed up to the programme, buying Florida tomatoes only from growers within it. This is a win-win approach: the workers are protected and the brands can be assured of the ethics of this part of their supply chain. This model, called ‘Worker-Driven Social Responsibility’, is rightly gaining much attention from many sectors.

A poster for the Florida Fair Food Program

 A 'fair food' label hangs on the wall at The Coalition of Immokalee Workers headquarters, Florida. © Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images. 

Finally, there is good work happening to ensure the private sector recognises the role of recruitment fees in facilitating debt bondage, but another root cause of worker vulnerability is rarely discussed. Companies with global supply chains have the power to improve wages in poorer countries. Poverty creates vulnerability, and vulnerability opens the door to traffickers. The Department for International Development has given £40 million to tackle slavery but what about the reach of UK businesses into those countries? We need a holistic approach to this issue, and that would include UK companies requiring the payment of living wages throughout their supply chains. This would address root causes, instead of symptoms after the fact.

These are just a few of the solutions we need to see and which are too often not on the table. Of course, underlying all of them is an assumption: that business will place human rights above, or at least equal to, profit-making. This will be necessary if we are to achieve SDG 8.7 by 2030. Situating supply chain activity in poorer countries, with fewer labour protections and more economically vulnerable workforces, must no longer be acceptable if it does not go alongside genuinely improving the lives of those workforces. Without this culture change, our consumption is facilitating exploitation and modern slavery. We have incumbent upon us a moral duty to stop privileging price and profit over the basic wellbeing and rights of people who are just like you and me, but happen to have been born into different circumstances.

Modern slavery has caught the attention of governments, companies and citizens around the world and there is real progress being made. But it is time to erase the word ‘impossible’ from our vocabulary. It is time to build a different world, which thinks the only reasonable course of action is one which places human rights and the eradication of slavery firmly at its heart and its business choices.

Kevin Hyland OBE was the United Kingdom’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, leading efforts to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. In this role he promoted best practice and drove crucial improvement across the anti-slavery response, both in the UK and internationally. 

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