What could be: new roles for business in confronting and eradicating slavery

There is a quote from an old Trevor Howard film, The Golden Salamander, that stuck in my mind when I saw it one rainy Sunday afternoon many years ago: “Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.”


Forced labour and child exploitation have been evil features of international supply chains for centuries. They have been too easily ignored because they occur in some of the more obscure corners of the world – the fields and forests of Africa for example, or the slums and anonymous industrial estates of Asia. 


In the past, as diligent journalists and non-governmental organisations exposed some of these abuses, it has tended to be businesses that have been most roundly criticised and condemned for tolerating such cruelties within their supply chains. 


Slowly this has begun to change, beginning with the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These recognise that businesses have a responsibility to respect the rights of workers, and that it is governments which have the duty to protect those rights. Plainly it is difficult for businesses to respect workers’ rights if they are operating supply chains in countries in which the governments, as a result of lack of capacity, disinterest, or corruption, are failing to protect workers’ human and employment rights. 


While many business executives will be profoundly distressed by the thought of slavery or child labour abuses in their supply chains, many others may not be particularly troubled by the human rights risks that governmental failures pose. Some may even be privately delighted at the cost savings that can emerge from a disdain for the basic rights of human beings at work. Indeed some countries and businesses have based their competitive advantages on the cost savings that forced and child labour bring.


A number of recent laws offer a distant prospect of ending any complacency or cynicism about the enslavement of vulnerable workers in supply chains. Perhaps the most significant is that signed into law by President Obama in 2016: the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA). This introduces new powers for public officials to exclude from the United States slavery tainted goods. The possibility of being denied access to as lucrative a market as the USA must give pause to those who have hitherto been glibly enriching themselves through the enslavement of others.


While much less world-leading, the transparency in supply chain clause (TISC) of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides something of an unappreciated opportunity for businesses. This clause requires businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million trading in the UK to report on what they are doing to ensure the elimination of slavery from their supply chains. 


If they chose, businesses can use the necessity of their reporting requirement to confront the evil that slavery represents. They should not limit themselves to accounts of the management measures they have introduced in order to counter risks of trafficking. They should also begin to enumerate the law and policy failings in the countries in which they are operating that increase risks of human trafficking. 


Because it is a fundamental truth of contemporary politics: that the voice of business carries greater weight than that of conscience. As Spiderman teaches us, with that great power comes great responsibility. Business can use its voice to help set out the laws, policies and practices that are necessary to eliminate slavery in supply chains and, ultimately, in the world.


This goes to the heart of the matter. The elimination of modern slavery is a political issue. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved. This means that slavery is not a simple criminal justice challenge that good policing can resolve, nor a managerial one that can be resolved by new codes of practice, or ethically dubious social audits. 


In the end slavery eradication within supply chains and beyond will require a range of measures from diplomacy to international education, aid and trade policy. Business leaders can provide a vital service in this struggle by offering their insights on the causes of the slavery that they encounter. In other words, by no longer ignoring the evil of slavery, but going out to confront it, and, in doing so, joining the struggle to overcome it. 


Dr Aidan McQuade is Director at Anti Slavery International. 

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