No company wants slavery in its supply chain, so why are so many sitting on their hands?

Monday, 3 October 2016 10:38 GMT

In this 2012 file photo a girl stands inside a protection home on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Decisive company action to end slavery and trafficking can bring dignity and freedom back to workers’ lives

Friday was a red letter day in the global fight against modern slavery. It was the deadline for the first companies to report under the UK Modern Slavery Act. Over 700 of these statements are available in a central Registry maintained by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. That number increases daily.

This UK legislation should be transformative. It has global reach estimated to apply to at least 12,000 companies worldwide. It obliges all large companies operating in UK markets to report on the steps they are taking to combat slavery and trafficking in their own operations and supply chains. This represents, globally, the most significant legislative requirement on companies on the issue of modern slavery.

From the migrant workers trapped on fishing boats in Thailand with the threat of being thrown overboard if they are not able to work, to the Eastern European car wash slaves in Cambridgeshire forced to work long hours for poverty wages, and living in “Dickensian” conditions; modern slavery ravages the lives of 45.8 million vulnerable people and their families worldwide.

That is why the Act is so significant. The ILO estimates illicit profits from modern slavery at $150 billion. Yet decisive company action to end slavery and trafficking can end this scourge and bring dignity and freedom back to workers’ lives. Unfortunately, however, our analysis of the company compliance statements highlights that many companies are missing the opportunity to act.

Under the Act, companies must make a statement approved by the Board and signed by a company director (or equivalent), available from the homepage of the company’s website. The UK government suggests, but does not insist, that companies describe their organisational structure, risks, company policies and due diligence to eliminate those risks. Approval by the board demands buy-in from the very top for company-wide action to combat slavery risks; a director’s (or equivalent) signature creates clear accountability; and access to the statement from the company’s homepage means easier public scrutiny by consumers and investors.

So, it is worrying that there is such a gulf between the companies providing better statements which point to decisive action, and the majority of companies providing little information or seeking to tick boxes, and little else. Shockingly, the majority of statements do not even comply with the three obligations of the Act. Only 183 statements of the 700 on our central registry have board approval, 474 are signed by a director or equivalent. 337 are available on the companies’ websites. Only 62 (approx. 9%) comply with all three obligations.

These compliance issues are a small part of the picture. The content of statements is also not matching the sentiments from companies that they wish to end this scourge. Many companies failed to provide any information on the action they are taking or be open about where the risks lie in their supply chain. A few statements are almost identical indicating that some companies are using a common template rather than individual risk assessment and response, and that the swathes of consultants that have popped up in this space might not be providing much advice beyond compliance.

Better statements come from the likes of Marks & Spencer’s, SAB Miller, Burberry, and Oxfam (shops). They demonstrate clarity on their risks, and increasing rigor in their efforts to eliminate slavery.

We created our free and public registry of company statements to reward those companies that are serious about eliminating slavery, and expose the laggards. Now, with statements being monitored and easily accessible, civil society, investors and consumers can demand more and better action. After all, most of us thought slavery was abolished 150 years ago. It’s time to finish the job.

Phil Bloomer, executive director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre