With the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimating 25mn people worldwide are trapped in forced labour, modern slavery is a very real issue for businesses across many different industries.
Recent figures released by the National Crime Agency showed a 10-fold increase in the number of suspected modern slavery cases in 2018 across UK local authorities. Last month, a group of retailers hosted a Modern Slavery Forum at the House of Lords to look at ways to tackle this critical supply chain issue and seek commitments from leading high street brands.
The European Union (EU) is actively pursuing policies to ensure better procurement decisions are made by businesses and the European Parliament (EP) is looking at EU-level rules on how public procurement can contribute to better functioning purchasing practices.
This raises interesting considerations about the ethical responsibilities of procurement professionals across Europe. In particular, the EP points out that “socially responsible public procurement must take into account supply chains and the risks associated with modern-day slavery, social dumping [a practice of using low-wage labour or moving production to a low-wage country] and human rights violations.” This effort makes sure that goods and services acquired via public procurement align with the European human rights protections, with new guidelines expected this year.
Australia has also recently introduced a modern slavery bill which not only requires large companies to publish annual statements on measures taken to address modern slavery, but is also trying to ensure modern slavery risks are identified and addressed in government procurement. Key elements would also apply to Australian companies and foreign entities carrying out business in Australia. The governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and US launched a call to action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking during the 72nd Meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2017, and 80 countries have now endorsed it.
The Commonwealth Secretariat, a voluntary association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states, has also prioritised eradicating forced labour and modern-day slavery. Baroness Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, stated that the aim is “to build on outcomes of other international meetings, including the [UN] Call of Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking launched on the side-lines of the 72nd Meeting of the UN General Assembly.”
The UK is currently seeing the first convictions from the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and the establishment of the office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has been a key lead in the UK effort to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. But what role will the United Kingdom take on socially-responsible procurement and how can businesses join in the mission to prevent modern day slavery in global supply chains?
Global Supply chain transparency can identify riskier suppliers but policies can also help to increase diversity and small business engagement with government procurement.
The crimes of modern slavery and human trafficking have often been hidden behind a veil of secrecy, making them difficult to detect in supply chains. Supply chain transparency can help to identify potential illegal activity so that companies can develop mitigation plans to address these risks.
Mitigation plans cannot be a one-size-fits-all; they must be nimble enough to cover all industries and all regions of the globe. Technology can be used to help make supply chains transparent and identify low, medium and high risks. Mitigation plans can be established to review those medium and high-risk suppliers on a timeline that makes the most sense for each company’s unique supply chain.
The issue of supply chain transparency to identify and address risks must be a global initiative which has NGOs, governments and businesses working together. Through dynamic partnerships, we can tackle the growing global problem of preventing modern day slavery. We commend the important global policy work, but governments can’t go it alone.
Policy work to foster ethical public procurement and strengthen public-private partnership should be top on the agenda for 2019. Regardless of size and industry, businesses should come together, utilising data and analytics, to provide the needed transparency into global supply chains which will help companies and governments make more ethical procurement decisions.
NGOs and governments can help provide more granular details to ensure identification of the bad actors and make sure risk assessments can be built on the best and most up-to-date data, and businesses can take these risk assessments and build in policies and mitigation plans to ensure they’re doing business with the most ethical and trustworthy companies. Together we can tackle this global crisis.