Benet Northcote: 'We can’t eradicate slavery without appreciation of human rights'

The John Lewis Partnership’s Director for Corporate Responsibility, Benet Northcote discusses the human rights agenda and what the UK Modern Slavery Act means for business.


What the Modern Slavery Act means for the John Lewis Partnership – is it a risk or an opportunity for business?

It’s about human rights, it’s non-negotiable. This is simply about the way we should be behaving as actors in civil society. It shouldn’t be classified as a risk or an opportunity.


Do you think the Modern Slavery Act somehow changed John Lewis Partnership’s approach in this space?

We’ve always taken these issues seriously. I think there is no question however, that the Act has sharpened focus on the issue of modern slavery and human rights. It raised awareness of the issue and challenged all large businesses to take action.


What do you see as the biggest challenges in implementing the Act and what are the challenges of the broader slavery work?

The way the Act is framed is very simple – complying with the basic elements of the Act isn’t that challenging. What’s more challenging is complying with the spirit of the Act. And that does require a broader understanding of the underlying causes and risks around modern slavery. That’s why we’ve been very clear to link our modern slavery response to our business strategy on human rights. If society is to successfully eradicate slavery, one can’t pretend that targeting that as a single issue is going to remove the systemic causes.


Incorporating modern slavery – which is one of the most severe breaches of human rights – as part of a broader strategy on respecting people’s human rights throughout global supply chains will unlock and address instances of labour abuses.


What does implementation of the act look like?

There isn’t one answer to this. All businesses have to understand where the greatest risks are in their operations and supply chains and where they can have the most influence and can make the most difference. It’s important to go above and beyond the basic audit or compliance in the areas where we can have a particular impact. Also no one business can address this alone: collaboration is essential.


We have engaged NGOs and experts in developing our human rights strategy and in delivering the projects that we are running. Waitrose is partnering with the Wilberforce Institute on assessing the risks in fresh produce. John Lewis is running a model factory programme in the UK. It was launched at the Fast Forward employment practices workshop in January with ten bedroom, upholstery and fitted kitchen suppliers taking part. We have engaged a specialist assessor to undertake the forensic employment practices and HR systems assessment at each site and each factory are testing a mechanism for workers to confidentially share thoughts, feelings and views about the employer and the place they work. However, for all businesses it’s about understanding their point of influence, trying to drive ambitious improvements and sharing learnings and being honest about what works and what doesn’t.


Who is responsible for anti-slavery work at the John Lewis Partnership? Where does it sit in the organisation?

We have a formal governance structure and process. Ultimate responsibility sits with the Partnership Board and is delegated through the management board to teams within our trading divisions.  The formal delegation and senior accountability is important in a retail business to ensure that the activity is embedded in how we operate.  For example when you’re dealing with suppliers, it has to be managed by supplier relations and merchandising teams. They are the ones who understand the technical specifications, such as quality of products as well as buying goods and services. They are also the ones who understand what the solutions could be.


Some of the biggest scandals tend to be connected to human right violations. In the era of ever growing corporate transparency, what’s the best way to handle the labour crisis?

The starting point has to be understanding the situation, what has happened and focusing on helping the people impacted by the labour abuse. It’s not always clear what the immediate answers are, but working with the supplier to rectify the situation and drive improvements has to be the objective.


You have to have a robust approach on how you tackle modern slavery and you shouldn’t be afraid of understanding what the issues are and working to help those victims of modern slavery as well as other companies further down the supply chain. Simply walking away isn’t the answer. Working with the police, NGOs and any other actors involved to try to find the best solution for the individuals is the way forward.


What is the role of digital and technology in addressing slavery?

Technology is going to drive the level of supply chain transparency that we haven’t seen before. The potential for our ID tagging or other technologies that are harder to get your head around – these are clearly the technologies that are going to make a difference to the way supply chains operate going forward.


Will technology on its own wipe out crime? I don’t think so. I think at the end of the day a criminal will always find a way of distorting the law.


How to get started? What would you advise to someone starting the journey?

Firstly, putting the effort in to map out your supply chain early is tremendously important. Secondly, it’s key to understand what it is that you do in the sector best. Identifying the point of influence, areas where you’ve got the most impact is the next stage. Then you can dig down and understand the problems in those areas and put in place programs to explore and address those challenges.


I don’t think we can eradicate modern slavery without a deep appreciation of human rights.


Benet Northcote is Director for Corporate Responsibility at The John Lewis Partnership. 

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