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Davos 2018: Why business is the best partner in the fight against slavery

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Slaves in the 21st century don't wear chains, but they are very real and very much in danger. Freeing them is going to require us all to work together.

Slavery is outlawed in every country in the world. It is universally abhorred. And yet, more people are enslaved today than when slavery was legal.

Why? Because today, the millions of men, women and children who are exploited, abused, denied basic human rights and deprived of their dignity have no chains. They are the silent victims of a toxic economy driven by a global thirst for cheap goods and services.

More than 40 million people are currently enslaved. Of this number, 70 percent are trapped in forced labor, working unpaid in factories, risking their lives on fishing boats, dying as children in dilapidated mines and hidden so far down the supply chains of multinational companies that it is almost impossible to trace them. Yet there they are, locked in debt bondage or working for nothing, all in the desperate attempt to pay their masters back for the privilege of giving them work.

It is hard to deny the moral imperative for businesses to take the lead in fighting this shameful global crime. But if the moral argument alone isn’t enough, board members, shareholders and investors alike might like to know that fighting slavery also offers attractive economic returns.

Slavery is a multi-faceted crime. It flourishes where corruption is widespread, where there is impunity, where people are poor and vulnerable, where girls don’t go to school, where kids don’t have a future and are at risk of being radicalized. When you fight slavery, you fight all of that.

And change is happening.

Let’s start with media scrutiny. You only have to look at what happened following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, when 1,134 workers lost their lives and 2,500 were injured. Suddenly, slavery found itself in the headlines and some of the biggest businesses in the world responded, pledging to work together to improve working conditions and monitor progress. Businesses care about consumer perception, and increased media scrutiny has led to public awareness – though, this alone doesn’t necessarily translate into changed spending habits.

The second factor clearly leading to progress is the introduction of new legislation. The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 has developed a standard for corporations to adhere to. The act requires companies with a turnover of more than £36 million to publish a public statement about what they are doing – if anything – to address slavery in the supply chain. France, Australia and The Netherlands have adopted similar legislation. It’s all a beginning; more remains to be done. Recent evidence suggests that many businesses in the UK– more than one in three – are ignoring this legislation, without penalty.

But more laws won’t put an end to slavery. The problem with laws is that they have to be implemented. So, the change in attitude has to come from big business themselves, and it has to come from the top. It’s always more efficient if it comes from CEOs who can lead the way in supply chain transparency and management. Every tier of their businesses will follow suit.

Here, certain global corporations are setting the bar high. Adidas,  for example, has established strict responsible sourcing guidelines tracing risks of forced labor right down to the raw materials used in its supply chains. This is exceptionally hard to do. The company, which employs 1.3 million workers and won the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Stop Slavery Award in 2017, has also established worker hotlines across Southeast Asia allowing people to anonymously report concerns.

Engaging big businesses is a necessary step in the efforts to crush modern slavery, but without the serious risk of reputational damage, increased regulation and continued media attention, there’s a danger that some businesses will lack the courage or incentive to address the issue. That’s why the fight against slavery must be a priority for all of us.

A version of this article originally appeared on the World Economic Forum website.

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