Slaves in the Supply Chain: 12 Ways to Clean up Business

By Holly Young
Published on December 10, 2013 in The Guardian

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Are ethical audits actually useful? How do you incentivise due diligence? Ourpanel unpicks the politics and practicalities of supply chain transparency

Genevieve LeBaron, vice-chancellor’s fellow in politics, University of Sheffield. Sheffield, UK. @GLeBaron

Do not rely on audits, they are built around products, not people: One of the things I’ve found through my research is that auditing is limited in its detection and correction of forced labour. The pathways of audits are currently built around products—not people—so they tend to miss the areas of the labour supply chain that pose the most risk. Yet, corporate social responsibility initiatives and legislation continue to rely on audits and adopt audits as regulatory instruments.

Address the root causes: It is important to consider the structural political and economic causes behind forced labour. Tackling slavery in supply chains will require us to think big about the role of politics in addressing the vulnerabilities that allow these practices to thrive in the first place — including poverty, outsourcing, and current approaches to governing labor agencies and business.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive, Unseen, Bristol, UK. @andyw1

The vital role of government is to legislate: Companies are beginning to map supply chains but without legislation to level the playing field, businesses will be reluctant to put their head above the parapet due to issues of competition and possibility of becoming the poster boy or girl for ‘being bad’.

Abandon the ‘big bad business’ narrative: To make progress on the issue, NGOs need to be open to cooperating with business. We need to be realistic and recognise that for business the motivator will initially be one of competitiveness, profit and risk. The question is can we reach a win-win situation for both victims and business?

Beate Andrees, head of the special action programme to combat forced labour, ILO, Geneva, Switzerland. @ILONEWS

Recognise the price of forced labour in the supply chain: We estimate that the ‘cost of coercion’ in terms of lost wages and illegal recruitment fees are at least US$21bn annually. While most forced labour takes place in the informal economy or down the supply chain, companies will ultimately have to pay a higher price for the products or services they source at cheap costs and at the risk of forced labour.

Dan Viederman, chief executive, Verité, Amherst, US. @Verite_DanV

Start by looking at where migrant workers enter a company’s – or its supplier’s – operations: Foreign migrants typically take on thousands of dollars of debt to get jobs overseas, and then generally have no choice but to endure working conditions that can often be deeply exploitative. Verite’s fair hiring toolkit helps companies and other stakeholders understand and address these problems.

Peter Williams, NGO co-ordinator, Ethical Trading Initiative, Oxford, UK.

Acknowledge that regulation and self-regulation go hand in hand: Many recent advances in labour rights legislation have only come after better businesses have established good practice on a voluntary basis.

New companies need to be prepared to tackle slavery in their supply chains: They need to collaborate with other companies and with trade unions and NGOs, and to ensure decent conditions across the board by making labour rights central to their business approach.

Robin Averbeck, senior campaigner, Rainforest Action Network, San Francisco, USA.

Tailor your approach to specific industries: Understanding and assessing risk factors of forced labour in palm oil supply chains is very different from doing so in a garment factory for example. Supply chain mapping is a crucial step to understanding and addressing forced labour. This has been a challenging and crucial step we are pushing for among consumer-facing companies that source palm oil towards. Because the supply chain is very long and complex, companies are outsourcing their responsibility to third party certification schemes like theRSPO that do not guarantee traceability nor that palm oil purchased is in fact responsible.

Rachel Phillips Rigby, office of child labour, forced labour, and human trafficking, U.S. Department of Labour, Washington D.C., USA.

Incentivise rigorous due diligence: Compelling incentives could come either through regulation or the market. The issue we currently have is a large gap between best-practice companies and those that choose to do nothing, and can easily get away with it. A lot of creative thinking is going into finding the right incentives for the laggards. For some, regulation may be the only answer; for others, it comes down to making a business case for meaningful action.

Resource: Our Reducing Child Labour and Forced Labour: A Toolkit for Responsible Businesses helps companies take steps to address forced labour.

Neill Wilkins, migration programme manager, The Institute of Human Rights and Business, Chichester, UK.

The real progress will happen when businesses go beyond simple compliance: I think the usefulness of the California Act and likely equivalents in other locations is still to come. The new website Know the chain which aggregates disclosure statements pushes this along a little more, allowing for comparisons. I think the civil society and activist communities have also still to get their teeth into this. The difficulty for companies is always that trying to be transparent means admitting to failings along the way.

Aidan McQuade, director, Anti-Slavery International, London, UK. @the_mcquade

Beware of ‘ethical audits’: Many of the factories in Bangladesh where workers have lost their lives have been ‘ethically audited’ as have many of the factories in India where young women and girls are enslaved. The purpose for which ethical auditors are generally employed is to find nothing. It is a corruptible process: if you bring back negative findings or blow the whistle you are unlikely to be reemployed. But without these problems auditing approaches, which are generally sample based, can miss vast swathes of problems.

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