How to ensure your business supply chains are not tainted by slavery

Slavery can affect any business, and companies have responsibility for ensuring their supply chains are not tainted by slavery.

In recent times, the business world has been waking up to the hard truth, that slavery not only still exists, but affects their supply chains across the world.

There are estimated 40 million people trapped in slavery globally, with 16 million exploited in the private sector. In the UK, authorities estimate that tens of thousands of people are in slavery, most of them in forced labour.

In 2016, a UK factory owner, who employed large numbers of Hungarians as a 'slave workforce' to supply beds to high-street retailers, was sentenced to 27 months in prison for people trafficking. The victims had been made to work up to 16 hours a day for as little as £10 per week.

Modern slavery has been found in supply chains around the world, from the cotton in our clothes and the minerals for our electronics, to the manufacturing, warehousing, shipping, and cleaning and catering services along the value chain. Increasingly, an awareness is growing that there can be no guarantees of a slavery-free product. If you think your own business is immune, think again.

The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires businesses with annual turnover of £36 million or more to report on the steps they are taking to tackle slavery and human trafficking in their business and supply chains. Although it was a landmark legislation, others already are going further, going beyond reporting to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence requirements. Most notable is the French Duty of Vigilance Law, on parent companies’ responsibility to prevent violations in their subsidiaries and supply chains, and some countries are following suit. There are growing calls to introduce similar law at the EU level, with a number of leading businesses publicly supporting such law, arguing the need for a level-playing field.

With the momentum towards more robust legislation, parent companies’ accountability for the impacts of their subsidiaries, supply chain, and subcontractors will only increase. Companies must be able to dig deep into their supply chains to identify and tackle modern slavery risks. They need to work in close collaboration with their subsidiaries and suppliers to prevent violations and provide remediation to victims.

Companies must recognise and address where their own business model and practices are creating enabling conditions for modern slavery to thrive. Complex supply chains with little visibility, downward pressure on prices, short-lead times, and a lack of freedom of association all can increase the risk of forced labour.

Businesses wishing to demonstrate leadership must address the underlying causes of slavery. This not only means ensuring their business models do not facilitate it, but also using their leverage to tackle external causes, such as weak rule of law and corruption. No actor can do this alone. Businesses must work in collaboration with like-minded companies, civil society, and trade unions to drive the change needed.

Times change. It is no longer acceptable to tolerate exploitative practises in supply chains. But with the right leadership, business can join the moment to end slavery for good. 

Learn about this and more at the Subsidiary Governance Summit on 25 October 2019, where we will further explore managing risk in subsidiaries to ensure a sustainable supply chain.

The author of this article is Chloe Cranston, Business and Human Rights Manager at Anti-Slavery International.

Anti-Slavery International works to end all forms of slavery across the world by supporting people to leave slavery and campaigning to change laws and practices to protect people from being trapped and exploited. Founded in 1839 by British abolitionists, it is the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, this year marking its 180th anniversary.

Chloe will appear as a panel speaker at the Subsidiary Governance Summit.

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