Breaking the Silence on Slavery: Why Companies Need to do More

By Oliver Balch
Published on December 4, 2013 in The Guardian

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Spotting abuses in supply chains doesn’t absolve corporations from the obligation of helping victims. It’s their duty, not NGOs’

After decades of silence and denial on modern-day slavery, big business is at last showing signs that it may be listening. Recent years have seen corporations such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Ford roll out a succession of auditing and training measures to identify abuses in their global supply chains.

Vital though these compliance procedures are, anti-slavery groups express concern that the immediate needs of victims are being overlooked. Companies are currently doing “very, very little” to financially support frontline charities working with slavery survivors, argues Andrew Willis, chief executive of campaign group Unseen. Were that to change, then such charities – “most of which are tiny”, according to Wallis – would have the opportunity to boost their services and achieve greater impact.

Not all survival support groups are so upbeat about joining hands with big business, which many view as part of the problem. Free the Slaves, for instance, has a policy not to accept money from corporations judged to be at risk of abetting slavery. Even so, Kevin Bales, the charity’s co-founder, argues that companies have an ethical obligation to assist with medical care, shelter, security and the other immediate requirements of slavery survivors. “You can’t just hand them over to an NGO … you need to bankroll that NGO so that it has the resources to deal with the issue,” he says. The more direct the relationship between the corporation and the offending employer, the larger that moral imperative.

Examples of such support still remain few and far between, however. Google is a rare exception. It offers free banner ads to raise awareness of a telephone hotline run by US non-profit, the Polaris Project. Billboard advertising firm Clear Channel has also offered free publicity for the hotline, which provides help and advice to former and current victims of trafficking.

Anti-slavery groups also see big potential for companies to flex the muscles they have as large employers. “Even if a survivor gets out of the situation and even if they get connected with services, there comes a point where they need a job,” says Bradley Myles, Polaris Project’s executive director. Business-backed educational scholarships, skills training, mentoring programmes and the like would all help provide pathways to self-sufficiency, he insists.

One of the few large corporations to go public with such a measure is global hotel chain Hilton Worldwide. Jennifer Silberman, the company’s vice-president for corporate responsibility, cites Hilton’s Room to Read project. The scheme provides literacy skills to children who have been trafficked or are at high risk of being so. Hilton also participates in the Youth Career Initiative, an industry-wide scheme that provides work-based training for young victims of trafficking in Mexico and Vietnam.

Providing victims with legitimate job opportunities also reduces the risk of survivors facing criminalisation or further mistreatment. In many countries, victims of international trafficking are especially vulnerable to charges of illegal immigration, says Dan Viederman, chief executive of US-based fair labour groupVerité. He gives the example of Malaysia, where survivors are reportedly liable to abuse by extra-legal militia in addition to formal detention and deportation. It behoves companies to “take on” the cause of victims rather than leave them “at the mercy of legal systems that treats them as illegals,” Viederman says.

The most controversial demands of the anti-slavery movement centres around financial restitution. Baroness Mary Goudie echoes a growing call for fines to be imposed on large corporations that are found to be complicit in egregious labour abuses. A proportion of these penalties should be earmarked to provide compensation to victims, says Goudie, who is pushing the UK government to include a clause on restitution in its pending bill on modern day slavery.

Such provisions are not without precedent. Federal legislation in Brazil obliges companies found guilty of using slave labour to pay an immediate settlement to the affected parties. Campaigners are pushing for the government to pass aconstitutional amendment that would allow for farmland to be expropriated in slavery cases and subsequently redistributed to vulnerable rural communities.

Corporations are naturally cautious about mandatory sanctions, a position Theresa May, UK’s home secretary, appears to support. “I don’t think any of us want to rely on legislation,” she told delegates at the Trust Women conference on Tuesday where she called on the private sector to “take the initiative” and “play its part” in combating all forms of coercive labour.

Apple provides an example of what voluntary action might look like. Since 2008, it has prohibited its suppliers in south-east Asia from using contract workers that have paid excessive fees to obtain a job – a common demand among third-party employment agencies. Where cases are identified, Apple obliges supplier factories to reimbursements (pdf) worth $13.1m (£8m).

“It’s ethically imperative that companies take responsibility for solving problems when they find them,” says Veiderman. “And it can be done.”

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