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Human Rights

Ending Modern Slavery Starts in the Boardroom

Child labourers rescued in Delhi waiting to be sent back to their villages. Credit: Bachpan Bachao Andolan/IPS

WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS) - Modern-day slavery can be eradicated from multinational supply chains, but only if global businesses contribute to greater transparency and collaboration, according to new recommendations by Sedex Global and Verite.

“Human trafficking and slavery in the supply chain are global issues,” Mark Robertson, head of marketing and communications at Sedex Global, which provides a collaborative platform for responsible supply-chain data, told IPS.

“Modern day slavery carries risks for companies. It can seriously affect a brand’s reputation.” -- Mark Robertson

“But these issue are not unsolvable and there are good examples of companies – and initiatives – tackling the issue.”

There are thought to be some 11.7 million victims of forced labour in Asia, followed by 3.7 million in Africa and 1.8 million in Latin America. Slave labour is part of the production of at least 122 consumer goods from 58 countries, according to the 2012 International Labour Organisation statistics listed in the briefing.

The U.S. federal government compiles its own such list of products produced by slave or child labour. According to the latest update, last year, some 134 goods from 73 countries use child or forced labour in the production processes.

Certain sectors are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labour. According to the new briefing and backed up by these other lists, particularly problematic sectors include agriculture, mining and forestry, as well as manufacturers of apparel, footwear and electronics.

“Asia is the source of many of the world’s manufactured goods, and also home to half the world’s human trafficking – the majority of which is forced labour,” Anti-Slavery International’s Lisa Rende Taylor notes in the report.

Almost 21 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to the briefing, 55 percent of whom are women and girls.

Migrant workers and indigenous populations are considered particularly vulnerable to forced labour. The briefing highlights issues that analysts say have not yet been sufficiently addressed, such as “broker-induced hiring traps”, exacerbated by steadily increasing volumes of migrant workers all around the world.

“For workers, labour brokerage increases migration and job acquisition costs and the risk of serious exploitation, including slavery,” the report states. Further, the presence of both well-organised and informal brokerage companies “in all cases” increases migrant vulnerability.

“The debt that is often necessary for migrant workers to undertake in order to pay recruitment fees, when combined with the deception that is visited upon them by some brokers about job types and salaries, can lead to a situation of debt-bondage,” the report states.

Globalised supply chains

Sedex and Verite highlight the importance of sourcing from responsible businesses and offer recommendations for both brands and suppliers on how to engage in ethical practices in supply chains.

“We are hoping to help companies understand the risks that they and their partners face with regard to the modern slavery,” Dan Viederman, the CEO of Verite, a watchdog group, told IPS. “It takes more commitment from companies to really understand what is happening amongst the hidden process among their business partners.”

Viederman says the new campaign by Verite and Sedex Global will work to motivate companies and their suppliers.

Globalisation and “complex and multi-tiered” supply chains have made it massively more difficult to detect forced labour and human trafficking, the new report states. Thus, “companies need tools, protocols and policies to effectively audit trafficking and to establish mechanisms to protect workers.”

The briefing recommends companies step up actions to “raise awareness internationally and externally of the risks of human trafficking” and to establish corporate policies to address related issues. Particularly important is to “map supply chains, which would help identify vulnerable workers and places of greatest risk.”

Sedex Global, with over 36,000 partners, allows member companies to upload all social audit types, which are primary tools for brands to assess their own facilities and those of their suppliers to detect workers abuse.

The Sedex platform highlights social audits, conducted between 2011 and 2013, that show that a “lack of adequate policies, management and reporting on forced labour” as well as a “lack of legally recognised employment agreements, wages and benefits” can indicate a risk of forced labour being present.

“Modern day slavery carries risks for companies,” Robertson says. “It can seriously affect a brand’s reputation.”

Nor is slavery an issue that affects only developing countries.

“Since 2007, more than 3,000 cases of labour trafficking inside the United States have been reported – nearly a third from 2013 alone,” Bradley Myles, the CEO of the Polaris Project, a U.S. anti-trafficking group, says in the new report.

“And there are so many more people who are trapped that we haven’t heard from yet. Business can and should take steps to eradicate this form of modern slavery from their operations and supply chains.”

California model

Consumers also have enormous power – if they use it. But “the issue has not pervaded the conscience of society quite yet,” Karen Stauss, director of programmes for Free the Slaves, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“The word hasn’t gotten out. Consumer power, the company’s buying as well legislative powers, should all be part of the resolution.”

Stauss says a good model comes from a state law here in the United States, called the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, or SB-657. This would require publicly traded companies to disclose what efforts they are making to eradicate human trafficking and slavery from their supply chains.

Many companies, however, do not yet appear to have formal anti-slavery policies. According to the Corporate and Social Responsibility press release, out of 129 companies urged to conform with the California law by Know the Chain, an anti-slavery group, only 11 have done so.

The director of communications of Humanity United, Tim Isgitt said, “After months of outreach to these corporations, approximately 21 percent on the list are still not in compliance with the law.”

“It is necessary to push all businesses, not only progressive ones, to be more transparent to their customers and their investors in their supply chains,” Free the Slaves’ Stauss says.

“Although multinationals might not be directly involved in the exploitation of forced labour, they can help confront it by using their buying power to influence their direct and marginal partners who are involved in the production of the raw materials, where human trafficking and forced slavery are most prevalent.”

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  • Yotam Ariel

    Very true and important.

    We (Bennu Solar) now do Social Auditing to our suppliers, and have asked other players in our sector to do so.

    There are very affordable audit companies with great service, but still, many of our peers would not approach them and ask that their suppliers be audited.

    For me, I can’t sleep at night knowing our goods might be produced by abusing women in China. I worked over 2 years to have our suppliers improve labor conditions.
    But our peers just seem to see it as an inconvenient truth, or ‘not our business’ attitude.

    Hope on one side, and discouragement on the another..
    I’ll continue to raise awareness and demand social auditing.

    Founder & CEO — Bennu Solar Ltd.

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