Give companies incentives to tackle modern slavery

Wednesday, 27 April 2016 16:07 GMT

In this 2010 file photo stone worker Shahana Akhter shows the stones she collected at Bholaganj, Sylhet, Bangladesh. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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We hope the Stop Slavery Awards will take us all a step closer to putting the business of modern slavery out of business

As you read this, people around the world are being enslaved. The chains used to deprive them of their freedom are sophisticated: no longer locks and rope, but chains of supply and demand. The equation is not very hard to understand: buyers want cheap goods, companies want profit, and along the supply chain countless individuals are forced to work for free. Today, slavery is a global business worth US$150 billion – three times the annual revenue of Apple. There are 36 million slaves in the world, more than any other time in history.

The global outsourcing rush that started forty years ago has completely transformed supply chains, making them increasingly complex and more difficult to monitor. While it became easier for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of vulnerable employees, it became virtually impossible for corporations to have full visibility over the working conditions of those at the bottom of their supply chain.

Combine this trend with the unprecedented labour migration registered across Southeast Asia in the past two decades, and it becomes clear why the region has become the world’s hub for modern-day slavery.

The numbers are staggering: 10 nations have nearly three quarters of the world's slaves, and seven of those are in Asia: India far ahead of all the others, followed by China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand.

In Thailand, conservative estimates place the number of trafficked individuals in the range of 500,000, both in sex trafficking -for which the country is known as a super destination- and in forced labour, mostly in the fishing industry.

The country’s US$7 billion seafood industry is indeed a brutal example. There are no official records of how many people are currently enslaved on fishing boats, but human rights activists and some governments working on the issue are certain the country’s entire seafood industry, the third-largest in the world, would almost collapse if forced labour was to be effectively eradicated.

It’s easy to imagine why: in the past sixty years, global seafood production increased more than 1100%, driven by demand from Europe, North America, and Japan. In the attempt to meet demand and to maximise profit, the Thai seafood industry has turned to migrants.

Each year, lured by Thailand’s growing economy, thousands of people from poorer neighbouring countries pay brokers to help them cross the border and find unskilled labour opportunities. But once they have paid the brokers to travel to Thailand – and contracted a debt to do so – they are conned, trafficked, and sold to their masters at sea. Bought for as little as US$250, they are sent out to the high seas on unregistered “ghost ships” for months at a time and under constant violence and threat. Many of the fishermen come from Myanmar and had never seen the sea before being pushed on a boat and endure hell. I stopped eating prawns two years ago, after realising that pure human misery was what got them to my plate. I only buy them fresh in France or in Italy when I am on vacation.

Luckily, some progress has been made. Thailand has been warned by the European Union to put their house in order, or face sanctions; the Obama administration has effectively banned seafood caught by forced labour; and multi-national food company Nestlé has recently admitted - after a year-long internal investigation that found forced labour in its supply chain with migrants kept in debt bondage and degrading conditions in Thailand’s seafood sector.

Nestlé’s admission is particularly interesting. The company has set a very strong example for other corporations wishing to follow suit. Think about it: multi-national companies have the power to trigger immediate change for workers by simply switching suppliers. Just imagine the impact on a global scale if the world’s top 50 corporations formally committed to eradicating slavery in their supply chain. Many, like Nestle, have started to look seriously into this.

And that’s why, together with world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor, I have created the Stop Slavery Award. To be conferred for the first time at the annual Trust Women conference on November 30th in London, the prize will honour corporations that go above and beyond to try to clean their supply chains of forced labour. It will go to the best in class in their industries.

The idea behind the Award is very simple: we want to spark a virtuous cycle that will trigger more corporations to take action to investigate, improve, and eradicate unfair and illegal labour practices in their supply chains. The Award will also encourage consumers to make informed and responsible decisions on what goods they decide to buy. 

The path is clear: business has the power to eradicate forced labour, but corporations will take no action until the equation is one of low risk and big returns.

There should be real incentives for companies that decide to tackle modern slavery – we cannot expect corporations to map their supply chains when competitors who choose not to not only get away with it, but rake in profits. If we want multinationals to get serious about tackling slavery in their supply chains, we need to speak profit, risk, and reputation.

Companies should be prepared to collectively change the rules of the game. Consumers, on the other hand, should have realistic price expectations, and check the provenance of what they buy. A US$1 T-shirt is not always a bargain, it could be a red flag.

We hope the Stop Slavery Awards will trigger just that, taking us all a step closer to putting the business of modern slavery out of business.

Modern slavery is one of the key issues addressed at the forthcoming Trust Forum Asia conference taking place on 28 April in Singapore. The Stop Slavery Award will be conferred for the first time at the annual Trust Women conference on November 30th in London.

 This article was originally published on April 26 in The Business Times, Singapore.