Cindy Berman, head of modern slavery strategy at the Ethical Trade Initiative, spoke to me about the most promising work from member companies looking to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains.
“Businesses need to think more about suppliers as partners rather than simply farmers or manufacturers who should supply goods and services at the lowest price and quickest speed. Otherwise they are failing to recognise the real challenges those suppliers are also facing which is often at the source of modern slavery.”
Cindy was talking to me about the change the Ethical Trade Initiative has wrought in the past 10 years working with member companies to work to eradicate modern slavery.
“I think when we first started becoming more aware of the issues of sweat shop labour many companies felt they could address it through audits of compliance and occasional inspections and visits to suppliers.
“But what we saw was that even after passing an audit, sometimes only a few weeks after an audit had taken place, the Rana Plaza tragedy took place or fires in Pakistan factories. So now I think businesses have recognised that we have to go back to basics.”
She says for the ETI this means getting business leaders around a table not just with their competitors but also with their other perceived ‘enemies’ such as trade union leaders and charities dedicated to exposing poor practice.
“It is a safe place to hear differing views about the same issue which they are all invested in and find different and creative solutions together. No single company can be expected to solve this on its own.”
Most promising practice
Cindy tells me she is reluctant to talk about ‘best practice’ but talks about ‘good practice’ and ‘promising practice’ from members.
This includes groups of large UK brands signing local agreements with local trade unions and federations to recognise the rights of workers to join a union. This is seen as an ‘enabling’ right that allows collective bargaining and helps workers secure better wages for themselves.
Other practices includes companies eradicating ‘debt bonding’ within supply chains, when workers must pay recruitment agency fees for helping them secure the work and are often in debt for years. Some companies are, she says, now repaying those debts themselves and putting in place an expectation that the employer should always pay recruitment fees.
“We’ve seen this in Cambodia where the government had failed to include textile and apparel workers in their minimum wage provision. But these companies told the government that their investment in the country was at risk if these workers were not included. Similar things have happened in Myanmar.”
She says such actions force governments to see the absence of worker’s rights as a risk to their economy.
“And it also makes for more productive economies and commercially successful businesses because they are not spending time running audits.”
She sees forward thinking companies are aware that the issue of workers’ rights is actually about risk management.
“It’s about the risk of business reputation and credibility which is so important to investors, consumers and everyday people.”
Strengthened anti-slavery legislation
While the UK government has been one of the leaders globally in tackling modern slavery Cindy says expects them to go even further this year.
“The government publishing a list of all those companies caught by the legislation, whose turnover is £36m a year, and a requirement to post their statement in a public place is now on the agenda. We hope to see a strengthening of that legislation in the next few months.”
She says the government is also set to, for the first time, publish its own modern slavery statement, with an expectation each department will do so from 2021.
This would cover government procurement of a large range of goods such as uniforms, surgical instruments, gloves and engineering components.
“Some departments have already started reaching out and producing guidance for key suppliers,” she adds.
However, Cindy says there is no room for complacency pointing to numerous examples of exploitation and slavery that still exist within the UK itself – such as in factories in Leicester, seasonal farm workers and those working in cleaning, car washes and nail bars.
“These are the people on the margins of our economy and they are on contracts that often nobody oversees. The government needs to enforce labour inspection here and resource it adequately. I don’t believe UK companies should have to worry about what is happening in their UK supply chains as we are a country that does have the laws, institutions and resources to enforce this.”
Climate change and workers rights
Cindy also says climate change should be regarded as an integral part of the global workers’ rights issues.
“Climate change is having a huge impact on populations, decimating people’s ability to survive off the land and be self-reliant and it is pushing millions out of their communities and forcing them to migrate for jobs. They end up appallingly vulnerable because when people are desperate for a job at any cost they are far more likely to be exploited and end up as modern slaves.”
The Ethical Trade Initiative has a range of resources to help business leaders tackle the problems of modern slavery in their supply chains.