OPINION: A modern slavery database is not enough. But it’s a start

by Fiona Gooch | Traidcraft Exchange
Thursday, 25 April 2019 12:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker sorts clothes at a garment factory near the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar June 16, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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

Tackling supply chain injustices requires action at both ends: in the place where workers toil in conditions of modern slavery and by the businesses close to us as consumers

Fiona Gooch is senior policy adviser for Traidcraft Exchange.

Modern slavery in supply chains is nothing new. It’s often behind the tea we drink, the clothes we wear, or the chocolate we eat. If something seems too good to be true it usually means someone, somewhere else is paying the price.

Six years ago the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 people, most of whom were young women making clothes for the international market.

The conditions they endured then were shocking. As a Rana Plaza survivor, Nahida said: “We thought: what if we go into the factory and something happens to the building. We were scared of what could happen. What if something happens and we die in there. That’s why many people did not want to enter the building. But at this point our supervisors and managers attacked and swore at us to force us in.”

Today there is greater public interest in the fate of those who produce the products we consume. There are also new tools to hold businesses to account.

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015 is one of those tools. But it is not always the sharpest tool in the box. The new Australian Modern Slavery Act, for instance, establishes a Government-run, publicly-available register, of what large companies say they are doing to tackle modern slavery. The UK has no such central register.

That’s why Traidcraft Exchange and Fashion Revolution have come together during Fashion Revolution Week to ask the Government to set up a modern slavery database where all the companies which are required to report on modern slavery are listed along with their statements. With the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act due to be published imminently there is a chance to push the Home Secretary to end this reporting loophole.

We’re not pretending this would be more than a modest change. But we’ve already seen that modest surface changes can lead to deeper structural change over time. In the tea industry our successful ‘Who picked my tea?’ campaign helped transform a culture of secret sourcing into one where transparency is the new norm. Over time we think that knowing where the tea they pick ends up will give tea workers greater bargaining power.

In the clothing industry Fashion Revolution’s ‘Who made my clothes?’ campaign continues to help drive transparency by connecting consumers directly to the brands they buy from.

We still need to see more lists of the sites of production being published. At the moment too many brands tell us as consumers that they care about labour rights whilst keeping information about where they buy from secret. The workers themselves know more about the realities on the ground and should have the opportunity to speak out if conditions are not as they should be.

That the fashion industry is, at least in part, powered by modern slavery should be shocking. The fact that 77% of leading UK retailers think there is modern slavery in their supply chains should prompt a major corporate change of direction.

Tackling supply chain injustices requires action at both ends: in the place where workers toil in conditions of modern slavery and by the businesses close to us as consumers, which often turn a blind eye to abuses.

We have to be honest about where our power as UK consumers lies: it’s hard to directly improve the conditions of an overseas workforce but we can change UK corporate behaviour for the better. Our modern lifestyles are subsidised by slave-like conditions but until British businesses reward better suppliers who have permanent employees paid a living wage they will just perpetuate the problem.

Companies do not have to wait until they are forced to act by regulation. Ten years ago Traidcraft Exchange and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply set out what responsible purchasing would look like. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act gives companies a largely free hand when it comes to their ‘transparency in supply chains’ statement. Good practice would include rewarding suppliers which have good working conditions, examining their own purchasing behaviour, and enabling supplier workforces to alert others to slave-like conditions.

But companies don’t need to restrict themselves to the legal minimum. Publishing the lists of the sites of production in a supply chain changes the power dynamic: it gives greater power to UK consumers who want to know where their products come from, but more importantly, it empowers workers who can use that information in their struggle for better pay and conditions.

So a modern slavery database won’t solve every problem. But it would be a good start.