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Let’s kill the business of slavery

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Slavery has infected supply chains for a majority of products available to western consumers. This means some of the goods you buy might well have been produced or sourced by someone trapped in slavery.

It’s in the clothes we wear, the phones we use and the food we eat. This means that some of the goods you buy might well have been produced or sourced by someone trapped in slavery.

It seems astonishing, but most corporations in the world will admit this is true. And if you know of the complexity of the immense supply chains of these corporations, you’d understand how it could happen. Every day, men, women and children are forced to work non-stop in life-threatening conditions to make some of the items that we legitimately and innocently buy.

How can this happen? Forty years ago, in a bid to cut costs, companies in the western hemisphere began to outsource their production to the developing world. The demand for a cheap workforce became fertile ground for forced labor, literally turning thousands and thousands of innocent people into commodities – the definition of modern slavery.

A slave is someone forced to work under fraud, coercion or threat of violence for no pay above subsistence. The only “modern” thing about slavery is that it is flourishing: We have more slaves today than ever in history. Slavery has existed for 5,000 years and didn’t end in the 19th century with abolitionist laws. It has evolved to cater to the growing industry of sexual exploitation and the growing demand for fast fashion and cheap goods.

Depending on where you live and what you buy, you almost certainly have been touched by slavery – and of course, you didn’t know it.

We know that in London, slavery is on our street corners, from nail bars to car washes to hotels. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, more than 40 million people are currently enslaved: 30 percent in sex trafficking, 70 percent in forced labor. And this number is a very conservative estimate.

This is organized crime at its worst, driven by almost total impunity for the traffickers. Only 9,071 convictions were recorded in 2016 globally, for 40 million slaves.

This is the perfect recipe for a business that makes USD$150 billion a year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

As supply chains become more complex and intricate, so too does the ability for those in the boardroom or running the company or investing in it to become aware of the issue.

I launched the Stop Slavery Award at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in 2015 to put slavery on the business agenda and reward businesses that have excelled in trying to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains.

It takes real courage for a company to admit a risk of slavery in its operations. Companies doing so necessarily open themselves up to media scrutiny. When we conceived the award, we wondered how many corporations would be brave enough to be associated with the word “slavery,” a word that consumers prefer to avoid thinking of when they buy. Yet the response exceeded our expectations: Some of the world’s biggest companies applied, such as Apple, Tesco and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

The 2017 winners were Adidas (earning the title of Outstanding Achiever), as well as C&A, The Co-operative Group and Intel Corporation. In November 2017, the winners were announced at the Trust Conference in London – our annual flagship event – and received a sculpture created for the initiative by Anish Kapoor, a British sculptor.

Encouraging businesses to fulfill their responsibility in ridding the world of this horrific crime is a huge step forward, and recent developments by regulatory bodies have been extremely heartening.

The 2012 California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires companies to publicly report on action they have taken to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.

The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 has gone further to develop a standard for companies to adhere to. The law requires companies with a turnover of more than £36 million to publish a statement about what they are doing – if anything – to address slavery in their supply chain. It has been very important in forcing companies to think of how to address the issue.

In February 2017, the French Parliament adopted a law which follows suit, except that the law does not use profit as a criterion for reporting; instead, it focuses on the size of the companies. Only 150 businesses will be affected by the new rules, but it lays out specific reporting requirements. In Australia, a similar anti-slavery bill should be ratified soon.

There is indeed strong momentum. And investigative journalism has driven it. When a corporation’s reputation is at risk, it reacts quickly. Business is much faster than government process. It takes time to conceive a law, vote for it and implement it. Journalism which sheds light on an issue that has historically been underreported and misunderstood can help drive significant progress.

Fighting slavery makes business sense. Slavery flourishes where corruption is widespread, where there is a culture of impunity and corruption, where people are poor and vulnerable, where girls don’t go to school, where kids don’t have a future, and where those exploited do not know their rights and do not know how to defend themselves. No one wins in a society riddled with slavery.

And that’s why cross-sector collaboration is vital.


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