Businesses are key to ending slavery and its $150 billion profit - campaigners

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 19 November 2014 18:40 GMT

Suspected victims of human trafficking are seen at a Thai government shelter in Takua Pa district of Phang Nga. Picture October 17, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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Businesses, with their vast purchasing power, can do much to end slavery by monitoring their supply chains

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Businesses must be held accountable for slavery in their supply chains and use their $80 trillion purchasing power to root it out for good, the head of a new fund to end global slavery said on Wednesday.

Slavery traps an estimated 35.8 million people worldwide in servitude in factories, mines, farms and elsewhere, and generates $150 billion a year in profits, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Jean Baderschneider, who will launch the Global Fund to End Slavery next year, said that members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), by contrast spend just $125 million a year between them on overseas assistance for fighting slavery.

"That is absolutely not a fair fight," she told the Trust Women conference in London, organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's the reason why businesses have to engage because businesses have a purchasing power of $80 trillion. They buy things, services, raw materials. It is that purchasing power that has to be mobilised to get a step-change in the fight."

Delegates heard that almost everyone inadvertently supports slavery and forced labour through the clothes, food and technology they buy.

Holding up her lipstick, Martina Vandenburg, founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, said anyone with a lipstick in their bag may have supported child labour in Indian mines producing mica, a glittery substance used in cosmetics.

Baderschneider, former vice-president for global procurement at oil giant ExxonMobil, said businesses were too often "let off the hook" and that every single company must commit itself to cleaning up and certifying its supply chains.

Companies must monitor suppliers and do risk assessments, she said.

She invited businesses to help test a toolkit which is being developed to help them map where there may be a high risk of slavery in their often extensive and complex global supply networks.

Baderschneider said that both companies and governments must bear responsibility for tackling the supply side of the slavery business. "That means you train, you educate, you invest in local communities so families can earn a living and do not have to sell themselves and their children into the slave trade."


Livia Firth, a champion of sustainable fashion, said slavery would not stop until consumers ended their addiction to fast fashion.

She described her horror on visiting a factory in Bangladesh in 2009 which was producing garments for a well-known brand.

Women had to produce 100 pieces an hour, there was an armed guard on the door to prevent anyone leaving, bars on the windows and the workers were allowed only two toilet breaks a day.

"Basically these women were enslaved, entrapped in this building. I was completely shocked. It was the first time that I realised that we, as western shoppers, are responsible for the lives of women on the other side of the world."

Firth, founder of Eco-Age consultancy, linked last year's Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed over 1,130 people to the desire for ever cheaper, faster fashion.

"We can't have trade at the expense of human rights and human tragedy," said Firth, whose husband is British actor Colin Firth. "Unless fast fashion addresses the issue of its core business model we will never get rid of slavery."

She gave the example of the global high street brand Zara. "They produce 10,000 looks a year. Who needs 10,000 looks?"

Bennett Freeman of U.S.-based asset management firm Calvert Investments said the Rana Plaza tragedy had shown that trade unions were more important than ever.

Speakers stressed the need for governments to push for tougher regulation and legislation on trafficking and forced labour.

Today, there are more slaves in the world than ever before, but there have been only 1,199 prosecutions worldwide for forced labour, the conference heard.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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