Corporate business is waking up to the fact that it cannot afford modern slavery. Not only because it is a liability to quality and brand integrity or because it is morally repugnant to its customers and shareholders. The conviction that business has a responsibility to raise the standard of human existence and leave a legacy of good is re-emerging as a pervasive belief in our world. The UK’s Modern Slavery Bill is on the cusp of legislating that all large companies must now report on their efforts to eradicate slavery from their supply chains. You could argue that the legislation is already late to the party.
Over the last decade, businesses of all shapes and sizes have invested in CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives and ethical procurement practices. It would seem fair to assume therefore, that the long arc of the moral universe is bending towards justice. And yet, the reality is proving far more challenging than first envisaged.
Back in 2005, the International labour organisation estimated that a minimum of 12.8 million people were engaged in forced labour. 80% of that figure were working for private agents or businesses. Today, the ILO figure is 21 million, 90% of whom are engaged in private labour. That’s equivalent to the whole population of New York City enslaved to businesses which, on some level, provide the products and services that you and I use. If the last 10 years has seen a major push on behalf of large companies to improve ethical practices, why has the percentage of'private' forced labour increased rather than decreased? Why do we regularly hear reports in the media of unethical practices and human rights abuses being committed on behalf of large companies who have invested heavily into CSR programs. Many of the suppliers who have been found guilty were rubber stamped as compliant with an ethical code of practice when audited. Of course, not all these accounts are accurate, but what they do reveal is a complex web of supply that even the procuring company has to scramble around to find evidence to refute.
My daughter recently came home from school with a book on the underground railroad operating in 1800s North America. The underground railroad was neither underground or a railroad but a secret network of abolitionists operating from their own homes; using ingenious ways to hide runaway slaves and move them on to a new life of freedom. Modern slavery has turned this concept on its head. Forced labour in our day is largely concealed from plain view but its illegal network proliferates underground. It seems inconceivable that such injustice can thrive in our modern age of technological connectivity. And yet it is the complexity of our modern world that enables this dislocation between the enslaved producer and deceived consumer. A small business in Europe can source a supplier in Asia without having to set foot in a factory. And even if they carry out rigorous checks, the remote and increasingly disconnected stages of production make it painstaking to get a handle on every link in the process. Our supposedly shrinking global village can more easily than ever conceal abuse in the hidden and faceless labyrinths of the long supply chain.
The challenge to business is to find a way to harness the technological advances of our age to connect the people who make stuff with those of us who buy it. To bring the processes into daylight and simplify what can become needlessly complex. The good news is that a few pioneers are putting ethical production at the core of their business model. They are the ones forging new inroads in this area. They are finding ways to move past the window dressing and engaging relationally with suppliers. They are getting on the plane, putting faces to statistics, giving workers a voice and collaborating with other suppliers on the production process. If we are to begin to see a dent in the forced labour numbers, there need to be many more like them. We can't afford not to.