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“What does modern slavery look like?”

by Aditi Wanchoo | adidas
Monday, 24 April 2017 12:22 GMT

Labourers work at a garment factory in Bac Giang province, near Hanoi October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Kham/File Photo

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

Well-meaning but often times poorly informed consumers, NGOs and media lack the understanding of the amount of leverage companies actually have to effect change

“What does modern slavery look like?” This is a question I ask new joiners when we run briefing sessions on social and environmental sustainability on our corporate induction days. The word slavery, even when accompanied by the term ‘modern’, usually makes people think about shackles and chains. But the reality is that today, because it largely goes unseen, slavery touches each one of us - from the food we eat to the clothes we wear - and the shackles are of coercion, abuse, debt servitude and more that make up this 150-billion-dollar criminal industry.

The Global Slavery Index estimates there are 45.8 million slaves in the world today. This has spurred the UN to set Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 on Decent Work and Economic Growth, which calls for: “… immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”. This is an ambitious target to achieve. It is imperative that governments, business, investors and consumers play their part in setting the stage for a world free of slavery and slavery-like practices.

One of the primary impediments that most enterprises face in finding and addressing risks in their supply chains is a lack of clarity over their supply chain relationships. Supply chains, as we all know, can be complex and opaque. The risks associated with modern forms of slavery, whilst occurring in any part of the chain, are especially prominent in the upstream tiers where there is little visibility and the most vulnerable workforce. Full traceability - from source to consumer - remains an ideal: one that has yet to be realised for the vast majority of businesses.

At adidas we have argued that broad based risk mapping is sufficient to identify critical areas of concern in our supply chain. And those potential impacts can be addressed by creating leverage through local partnerships. For example, in our risk assessment mapping, we identified Turkey as a small-volume but high-risk location for sourcing cotton. We then directed our efforts not on identifying specific cotton farms in our supply chain, but instead on identifying those key cotton growing areas where agricultural labourers, Syrian refugees, and their children, are likely to be at risk of exploitation. We then collaborated with the Turkish government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and local NGOs to design protection strategies.

Building long-term business relationships, capacity, transparency and trust with suppliers is also a critical factor in identifying, preventing and/or reducing modern slavery. At adidas we have, over the course of the past decade, consolidated our supply chain such that 80 per cent of all products are made in fewer than 110 primary factories. We also have broad visibility into our key materials-sourcing relationships. We are therefore better placed than many to identify and tackle this issue.

To unearth modern slavery risks, it is important to have a diverse tool box. One of them is being able to give workers a voice. This not only empowers them but provides data from the ground up on issues which can then be addressed. We have seen great success with our ‘Worker Hotline’ project, an innovative grievance mechanism run by an independent service provider in four of our major sourcing countries. It offers 300,000 factory workers the opportunity to anonymously ask questions, make suggestions or express their concerns via text messages and smart phone applications.

Well-meaning but often times poorly-informed consumers, NGOs and media lack the understanding of the amount of leverage companies actually have to effect change, especially in their upstream supply chains. There are many disengaged companies and poorly-engaged governments. This does not serve the common goal of eradicating modern slavery. Addressing modern slavery is a pre-competitive issue in many respects. There are 45.8 million lives at stake. The need of the hour is an eco-system and not a single-actor response.

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