Modern slavery: How to identify risks in your supply chain
Almost any business in almost every industry must be prepared to fight modern slavery and ensure a living wage throughout its entire supply chain. It’s understandable if that’s surprising. Most of us probably think of slavery as history. The word evokes depictions from centuries ago. That’s how it’s typically represented and seen in movies and on TV. But slavery exists in today’s world and “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t erase that fact.
To fight modern slavery, we not only have to know it exists and understand that it comes in different forms to how it’s portrayed in media but also be self-aware of our own potential involvement. It can exist within the supply chain of almost any company or product. So preventing and rooting it out requires us all to be proactive and vigilant.
What is modern slavery?
The phrase “modern slavery” is an umbrella term for the grievous exploitation of people by others for any type of gain, whether personal or commercial. The UK-based human rights group Anti-Slavery International, which has been fighting slavery for almost 200 years, states that modern slavery can take on many forms, but some of the most common include:
Human trafficking — When people are transported, recruited, or held through coercion, including but not limited to violence or threats.
Children slavery — The exploitation of a child in any way for someone else’s gain.
Forced labor — When people are forced against their will to work under the threat of punishment.
Debt bondage or bonded labor — According to Anti-Slavery International, this is actually the most prevalent form of modern slavery. People are forced to work as repayment for money they owe, thus having no control over the condition of their employment and their debt.
According to a 2019 report by The Guardian, modern slavery is believed to be more than three times larger than slavery between the 15th and 19th centuries. But it’s also much less visible than its historical counterpart. It lurks at the edges of society, just beneath the surface. And it can even look like a normal job – an ordinary part of a global supply chain.
What to know about modern slavery in supply chains
The massive and complex nature of global production means there’s often a vast web of suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors — some with their own web of suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors. So, knowing who is working for whom and under what conditions can be difficult.
There are a few industries that are totally free of it and it can be found in all stages of the supply chain: from the harvesting of raw materials to the manufacturing, and even shipping and delivery. And while it is most prevalent in African, Middle-eastern, and Asian countries, modern slavery can be found anywhere and everywhere.
Those who are trapped by modern slavery are unable to fight for a living wage. So, it is up to us to speak for those who can’t speak for themself.
How companies can fight modern slavery & ensure a living wage in their supply chains
It’s surprisingly easy for companies to inadvertently benefit from modern slavery. Often, all it takes is excess demand and limited supply to eventually lead to the necessary mistakes in oversight. But there are ways to secure the integrity of your supply chain and protect workers.
Here are some of the most important things you can do:
Have a Modern Slavery Statement
Some countries require companies based within their border that are of a certain size and operate international supply chains to regularly write a modern slavery statement: a report on the steps they take to identify and prevent modern slavery in their supply chains. For example, in the United Kingdom, all companies must release a public statement that extensively details how they are avoiding slavery within their production line. In the Netherlands, organizations must provide a statement/legislation which shows whether child labor is absent or present within their supply chains.
But even if your company isn’t legally required to do so, writing a modern slavery statement every year can be a great starting point for ensuring a living wage in your supply chain.
Typically, it should answer the following question:
What are you doing to prevent modern slavery?
What does your supply chain look like, and how does it work?
Have you undertaken any training or courses to identify and prevent modern slavery?
Perform a Thorough Risk Assessment
Knowing the basics of modern slavery isn’t enough to rooting it out or preventing it from being part of your supply chain. To adequately safeguard against it, you’ll need to find out how slavery relates to your industry and your specific production requirements — which services are most prone to it, what regions are typically home to it, and what types of workers are most at risk. You can then use that as a roadmap for examining your company’s operations and identifying which parts of your supply chain are most vulnerable. It’s important to keep in mind that while a risk assessment is usually about protecting a company's reputation, which this particular type will do, the primary focus is, first and foremost, about protecting the workers within your company’s supply chain.
Conduct due diligence on everyone in your supply chain
Having a modern slavery statement and performing a risk assessment are both excellent steps to ensuring your supply chain is free of forced labor, and those within it earn a living wage. However, actions must speak louder than words. Hence, it is crucial to conduct due diligence on everyone in your supply chain. That means not only researching suppliers and partners and verifying that they are not cutting corners to meet deadlines or targets, but also checking with human rights groups and NGOs in the region. It’s also essential to visit suppliers and production partners in person and audit for yourself where your current production lines are taking place.
It’s also important to cooperate with others in your industry. As Anna Gedda, the head of sustainability at H&M, told Business of Fashion, the fight against unfair payment is “not something that one company can decide or set on their own”. In other words, companies have to overcome the need to beat the competition in profits and come together to combat modern slavery. Otherwise, those within the industry will continue to undercut competitors by cutting costs in their supply chain, risking modern slavery, and possibly creating a vicious cycle of reduced manufacturing prices, risking more slavery.
Communication and coordination should also include but is not limited to NGOs, trade unions, suppliers, governments, and employers’ associations.
The previous business models of exploitation are no longer acceptable. In a step towards equality and fair living standards, companies must guard their supply chains from modern slavery. And while the short-term effects may limit profits and incur adverse results, the long-term effects provide greater hope for the future, no matter who or where you are.
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