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Slaves in the supply chain: how far are we willing to look?

September 2014

Michael Pollitt examines the background to the proposed Modern Slavery Bill

Two hundred years after Wilberforce, an unexpected slave trade boom has forced the world to revise its anti-slavery legislation. This time, however, Britain isn’t ready to lead the way.

Unlike two hundred years ago, slavery is now invisible. Behind closed doors, it has become more prolific and more lucrative than ever. At 29.8 million, the estimated number of people living as slaves today amounts to more than double the total number trafficked out of Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade. At 150 billion US dollars, the income generated globally from forced labour in 2012, was three times the revenue of Google (50 billion) and significantly higher even than ‘Big Oil’ (120 billion) and the US banking industry (141.3 billion).

Increasingly, this new globalised slavery has been found running through the supply chains that lead on to our high streets. The numerous exposés, in the last five years, of forced labour on West African cocoa farms have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, Cadbury’s and the other Western confectionary giants at the top of the chain. More recently, the Thai prawn-fishing scandal of 2014 revealed a picture of slavery, in the most traditional sense of the word, at the bottom of supply chains that led to Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

Migrant workers trafficked into Thailand spoke of being sold for a little as £250 by Thai employment brokers. Kept in chains without free access to food, they were exchanged between the captains of prawn-fishing boats, working out at sea for years at a time without pay. Many complained of indiscriminate corporal punishment and claimed to have seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them, in summary execution for misbehaviour.

With the horsemeat scandal of 2012 and the Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013 still fresh in the public’s mind, consumers began to question how much we really knew about the sequence of distant transactions that put food on our plates and clothes on our backs.

The answer, in the UK at least, was that we knew very little. Research published by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply earlier this year revealed that, until now, consumers and business leaders in Britain have relied on a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to international supply chains. According to a survey of 3,406 respondents, almost three quarters (72%) of British supply chain professionals said they have no visibility of their supply chains beyond the second tier. While 11% of business leaders polled through YouGov admitted that it was likely modern slavery is already playing a part in their supply chain.

Modern Slavery Bill
So when the UK Home Office revealed its plans to introduce a new Modern Slavery Bill in August last year, many believed that Britain was making its triumphant return to the forefront of international abolitionism. “I believe this is the first time any government has brought together, in a single Act, its legislative measures to counter this growing evil,” declared Home Secretary Theresa May. She was half right.

Former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had signed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act three years before. Although the Act was not a one-size-fits-all measure, it did aim to “counter this growing evil” in the appropriate international context. Under this Act, retailers and manufacturers doing business in California, with annual worldwide gross receipts of more than 100 million US dollars, are required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains.

Supply chain omission
When the UK eventually published its Draft Modern Slavery Bill in December 2013, international monitors and activists justifiably presumed that Britain would take the lead on supply chain slavery. Yet, nowhere in the draft Bill were supply chains mentioned. Ignoring protests from the evidence review team, commissioned by the Home Office to gather intelligence for the draft, the Government concluded that, instead of legislating on supply chains, it would “work with businesses on a voluntary basis so they can ensure their workforces and supply chains are not exploited”.

This decision has since proved unpopular among anti-slavery campaigners in the public and third sectors. A coalition of 15 leading anti-slavery organisations issued a briefing paper calling for supply chain transparency to be included in the legislation. A joint committee of representatives from the Commons and the Lords published a report warning that “voluntary agreements would not be afforded high business priority” and “legislation on supply chains does not have to be burdensome.” Drawing on statements from high street names like Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Ikea, the committee argued that ethical supply chains were ultimately “more profitable” because “a good reputation more than pays for itself”.

When the Bill was reissued in June this year, it included several alterations based on criticisms of the initial draft, but the proposed supply chain amendment was omitted. In the most recent Home Office statement, Theresa May argued that requiring companies to report on modern slavery in their supply chain would be would be an “additional burden” on UK business, which the Government would prefer to avoid. She also indicated that the EU was likely to enact new laws in 2016 forcing companies to report on human rights in their business relationships, which could include supply chains.

So unlike two hundred years ago, when Britain led the global abolitionist movement by example, the UK would now rather wait for Europe to twist its arm. I have heard it said that issues like this act as a barium meal for our democracy, showing up which parts of the system are functioning healthily and which areas require attention. British civil society has shown itself to be as strong as ever. Charities, think-tanks and opposition leaders have kept this issue pressed up to the glass of non-governmental involvement. Yet, even after the successes of the 2010 Bribery Act, we are losing traction when we attempt to share responsibilities between governments and corporations.

The last wave of international anti-slavery legislation, between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, was designed to prevent colonial governments from abusing the labour-force and fragile economies of the countries in which they operated. In many ways, multi-national corporations are the new colonial powers. Their upkeep depends on the same complex network of transactions across distant and disparate societies. Although slavery is now constitutionally illegal everywhere, many countries still lack the institutional capacity to fully enforce the rule of law.

The modern abolitionist movement has to reflect this transition of responsibility from governments to corporations and their supply chains.

Michael Pollitt is a researcher at the Legatum Institute, a London-based public policy think tank

UK & NI Ireland | slavery


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