The business world most often comes into contact with modern slavery where there are complex global supply chains. Business owners, of course, are primarily motivated by finances. They wish to make a profit – that is to at least cut costs and overheads so as to make their product as cheaply as possible so as to maximise profit. Obtaining the raw materials as cheaply as possible will be most attractive, thus opening the business up to supply chains that involve exploitative labour. Businesses may enter wittingly or unwittingly into the use of supply chains that are not slavery proof.
It is Governments and consumers who are increasingly aware of issues of bonded labour and human rights in supply chains who support, if not demand, that businesses act to implement ethical sourcing programs. It is in the interest of businesses to comply as they can otherwise suffer damage to their reputation and risk losing consumer confidence and market share if they are found to be sourcing from suppliers who use exploitative labour. They may even face legal sanctions if their suppliers are involved in illegal conduct. Businesses obviously wish to avoid these negative consequences which negatively affect their profits. So a good track record of acting ethically can encourage investment and consumer confidence.
Modern slavery affects over 29 million people around the world (Walk Free Global Slavery Index, 2013). The term ‘modern slavery’ describes exploitation so severe that people are not able to leave their place of work. ‘Slavery’ refers to the condition of treating another person as if they were property – something to be bought, sold, traded or even destroyed. People in modern slavery are essentially ‘owned’ by their employers, and are controlled through a variety of means including massive recruitment debts that they are unable to pay off, and threats of harm if they do try to leave. All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily. (ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (no.29)). Tragically, more people are in slavery today than when it was legal.
The evidence suggests that the risk of slave labour affects almost every industry – electronics and high tech, steel and automobiles, agriculture and seafood, mining and minerals, garments and textiles, and shipping and transportation. The evidence also suggests that, while modern slavery is illegal in every country in the world, it still occurs in every country in the world.
In previous articles in my blog I have written about Coltan (Columbite Tantelite) and Cobalt, metallic ores used in the electronics industry and mined with slave labour in central Africa. But modern day slavery does not solely exist at the beginning of the supply chain. One-third of migrant workers in the Malaysian electronics industry, which produces goods for some of the world’s best-known brands, are trapped in forced labour according to new research.
A report by Verité, an NGO working on supply chain accountability, found that forced labour is present in the supply chains of a wide cross-section of household electronics brands, which use Malaysian factories to produce billions of pounds worth of goods every year. The NGO interviewed more than 500 workers and concluded that debt bondage and the illegal confiscation of passports and documents were the main drivers of this “systemic” forced labour, which traps workers in low-paid jobs and prevents them from returning home.
Verité’s investigations found that workers were forced to live in cramped and dangerous accommodation, that female workers experienced sexual abuse by their supervisors, and migrants were forced to work excessive overtime under the threat of losing their jobs, which would leave them saddled with large debts they couldn’t pay off.
A large number of multinational companies from the US, Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea use Malaysia as their manufacturing base. Thousands of people from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam and other countries travel to Malaysia every year for work. According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, many enter the workplace at least $1,000 in debt, after being charged high fees by recruitment agents. The interviews or workers conducted by Verité also revealed that although it is illegal under Malaysian law, more than 90% of workers had their passports taken by managers at their place of work or by recruitment agents, with most saying they were unable to get them back.
This year the US state department downgraded Malaysia to the lowest tier of its Trafficking in Persons report, which ranks countries on efforts to end modern-day slavery. In the report, the state department criticised Malaysia for widespread abuse of its 4 million migrant workforce.
Business, however, has the power to end modern slavery in supply chains within a generation through three basic actions:
- Understanding and commitment – All organisations should understand modern slavery and require their leaders to commit to taking a proactive role in ending it. Government and the private sector should work to make the business environment intolerant of slavery, to drive slavery out of procurement and ‘slavery-proof’ supply chains.
- Leadership on auditing – Organisations should reframe their understanding of auditing from a ‘risk and reputational management’ measure, driven by PR teams, to an ethical imperative and essential operational measure driven by Chairpersons, CEOs, CPOs. Organisations should engage reputable, independent auditors to undertake rigorous audits of their supply chains and encourage effective worker/management dialogue.
- Accountability – Organisations should be accountable for business relationships and work to eliminate vulnerabilities in supply chains. Where modern slavery or other human rights abuse is identified, organisations should take corrective action and work together with suppliers and business partners. The private sector should be transparent about actions taken and lead by example
So how can you take action? Well, like I said at the beginning of this article, it is Governments and consumers who put the pressure on businesses to motivate them to act ethically. If you buy phones, electronics or clothing then there’s a very good chance those products were made in part by forced labour. So you have to take some initiative. You have to go to the brands you like and encourage them to come out of the shadows and deal with this issue… If you as consumers tell them that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say about this particular problem it will encourage them to be more open and more transparent. One easy way to do this is to download the ‘Good On You’ app from the Apple App store or from Google play. You can then ask a question of the brand in the Good On You app. The Your Voice feature allows you to send a message to brands urging them to do better on the issues you care about.