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Growing Concerns Over Modern Slavery

by Richard Welford  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | 5 April 2017

s 867655912578Over the last week there seems to have been an enormous amount of media attention being given to modern slavery. In the UK, there have been many newspaper stories about a doubling in the reported cases of slavery. In the US, students presented a petition to the President asking him to act on the estimated 17,500 people trafficked into the country to provide cheap labour. There have even been reports from the Guardian of modern slavery in cannabis farms.


Governments are using various tactics to try to deal with the issue. The UK was the first country in the world to introduce in legislation on transparency in supply chains of companies through the Modern Slavery Act, and businesses have begun to openly engage on the issue.


Cases of modern slavery have been identified, shared and no longer kept hidden. Many companies have put in place sophisticated measures to identify and mitigate risks associated with such human rights abuses, establishing steering groups to identify modern slavery risks, delivering training programmes for employees and introducing agreements with suppliers to ensure they comply with the Act.


In February, the French Parliament adopted a law establishing a duty of vigilance for businesses. This requires them to monitor their company and their supply chains for human rights violations. It also requires them to publish an annual risk report assessing the impact of mitigation measures.


In their risk report, businesses are required to identify the challenges faced by the company as well as their subsidiaries and subcontractors. After identifying risks, they must describe the ways they are working to mitigate the risk of violations and institute alert systems to track potential risks. Companies must fulfill their due diligence and take steps to eliminate forced labour in supply chains and evaluate the effectiveness of the monitoring policies put in place under the law.


Globally there have been many initiatives associated with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals dedicated to the eradication of modern slavery. At last the international community has woken up to the scale of slavery, which is often caused by humanitarian crises.


Governments are increasingly taking responsibility for slavery footprint and are encouraging the private sector to improve its impact on the world. We are seeing a global shift in the fight against all forms of slavery as developed countries formalize businesses’ obligation to uphold human rights.


Key to combating human trafficking and modern slavery is the role of the private sector, ensuring that products and services are not delivered at the expense of protecting human rights. Human trafficking is an incredibly profitable criminal enterprise and traffickers utilize modern day slavery to undermine the stability of free markets. Of the estimated 21 million people enslaved globally, 68 percent of them are exploited for labour.


As a starting point, companies need to assess where the risks are along the supply chain. This can be difficult because we know that many abuses happen deep down supply chains where traditional supplier audits fail to reach and in countries where the business may not have a direct presence. There will be a need to engage stakeholders on modern slavery risks and identify the places and supply chain stages were risks are greatest.  It will be important to be honest about such potential risks because NGO activists will be looking at whether companies are seeking to "cover-up" risks or avoid to acknowledge them. Transparency demands not that a company is perfect but that it demonstrates that it is doing all that is practically and reasonably possible with the resources it has at its disposal.


As part of their broader commitment to social responsibility, companies should look to tell their "story" of how they are trying their best to ensure that their products and services are slave free. It should be recognized that performance should improve over time and that not all risks are easy to eliminate in the short run. But companies will be expected to demonstrate how they work with other companies (even their competitors) and other stakeholders to eliminate the scourge of slavery.


As a starting point, companies that have not considered human rights and modern day slavery issues will need to:

  • Identify someone to champion initiatives in the company, develop policies, roll out awareness within the organization, inform suppliers of their requirements and write the report.
  • Map out the supply chains relevant to the goods and services provided by the company and undertake a risk mapping in relation to slavery.
  • Map out likely responses in relation to risks identified and have strategies in place for dealing with incidences of modern day slavery if they should arise.


Modern slavery and human trafficking will be discussed at the CSR Asia Summit in Bangkok on 26-27 September. Visit the programme here for more details.