Thomson Reuters Foundation
Businesses seeking to clean up their supply chains must invest in improving the lives of their workers rather than relying on technology or short-term fixes, campaigners and major companies said ahead of a conference on modern-day slavery on Wednesday.
With companies facing growing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure their operations are slavery-free, many are taking shortcuts, including superficial audits, instead of engaging with employees, said British rights activist Andy Hall.
“Hotlines and smartphone apps (allowing staff to report abuses) are widely hailed … but do not give any power to workers to organise, bargain and improve their conditions,” said Hall, who has worked on migrant workers’ rights in Thailand.
“And audits – which are often too quick and just focused on paperwork – need to go beyond factories and look at recruitment practices and housing,” he said ahead of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s one-day Trust Conference held in Brussels, Belgium.
Louise Nicholls of Marks & Spencer said the British retailer was striving to ensure its audits are more comprehensive than most, and backed by efforts to educate suppliers and workers about the drivers of modern slavery, and how to spot the signs.
“We are looking to scratch beneath the surface … to carry out assessments which can give us real insight as to what is actually going on,” the retailer’s head of human rights said at a panel on supply chain forced labour held in London on Tuesday.
From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex. Multiple layers across various countries – whether in sourcing raw materials or creating the final product – makes it hard to identify exploitation.
Companies will only succeed at ensuring their entire operations are free of abuse if they adopt a bottom-up strategy to reforming their supply chains, said Daniela Colaiacovo of the Goldlake Group, a gold mining company that operates in Honduras.
“You need to engage with local communities, treat workers like partners, give them benefits and training and involve them in the business process,” said the co-founder of Goldlake, which produces sustainable gold for the luxury jewellery market.
From tobacco in Bangladesh and palm oil in Borneo to diamonds in the Democratic Republic of Congo, investors should put pressure on industries and companies to change their practices, said Frida Arounsavath of campaign group Swedwatch.
The world will not meet the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – including ending extreme poverty and achieving gender equality – by the deadline of 2030 unless firms act quickly to end forced labour, according to Arounsavath.
Businesses fuel modern-day slavery as they seek to maximize profits by cutting labour costs to meet rising demand for cheaper goods and services, while ignoring worker abuses in their operations, anti-slavery experts say.
“Companies need to identify high-risk areas and consult with vulnerable groups such as women, children and indigenous groups,” added Arounsavath of Swedwatch, which monitors the environmental and human rights impacts of Swedish companies.
“Otherwise we won’t meet the SDGs mantra of leaving no-one behind, and reaching the furthest behind first.”
About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labour in 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.