Friday 4 November 2016

A Big Step Forward On The War Against Modern Slavery

After yesterday's piece on Syrian refugees toiling for next-to-nothing in factories that supply Marks And Spencer, you could be forgiven for taking a bleak view on how we treat the workers that make our clothes. Child labour and slavery don't seem to be going away, and there seems to be little political will to do anything about it.

Ah, but that's where you're wrong. In fact, the signing into law of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 has had a big impact in the commercial sector. In fact, there's been a huge uptick in big brands and companies that have become actively involved in addressing slavery in the global supply chain since last year.

The benefits, according to a survey led by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) on the first anniversary of the Bill coming into force, are clear. 97% of interviewees see the reputational risk of finding modern slavery in the supply chain as the biggest driver for change. 86% see corporate action on human rights as a critical business responsibility, whether or not it's seen as a problem for their image. There's a clear and consistent desire to keep the taint of slavery out of the modern workplace.

But there are challenges, which the interviewees also highlighted. Sheer scale is an issue, as are the organisational mountains to climb in simply getting these practices written, formalised and into place. There's a reason so few companies have explicit anti-slavery policies in place–no-one likes to feel that there should be a need for them in the 21st century.

The biggest driver behind success in eradicating modern slavery in the developing world is one of the simplest–good, clear communication with your workforce. Due diligence on core labour standards is vitally important, as are close ties with relevant government agencies and NGOs. But all respondents agreed that one of the most effective interventions is involving workers directly in managing and mitigating the risks of modern slavery. There's still some wariness in the management class in dealing with trade unions, however, with only a third of interviewees agreeing that they are an important part of the picture.

Most importantly, the survey reveals a significant change in both viewpoint and sense of responsibility. In short, the respondents are no longer looking at modern slavery as someone else's problem. This is a massive step forward in combatting workplace slavery. It's still early days, and no-one is pretending that there isn't a great deal of hard work ahead. But the will is there, and that's what will get things moving.

The last word goes to Cindy Berman of the ETI, who sums up the report like this:

“At the strategic level, senior leaders in progressive companies are stepping up to the plate and recognising their responsibilities. But even for these companies, their journey to tackle endemic human rights risks in their businesses is just beginning, and none can confidently say they have cracked the problem. We were pleased to see a recognition by companies that in addition to getting their own house in order, they need to work with others, engage with governments, and call on independent advice and expertise.”

You can read the whole report here.

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