Modern slavery is an evil that persists despite twelve international conventions and over three hundred international treaties banning it. It is a crime that causes suffering to thousands in the UK and millions around the world, and it is fast becoming a thriving business impacting us all. With its Resolution on Forced Labour, the Consumer Goods Forum is leading the way in fighting this in the consumer goods sector. Such a resolution is a significant step forward to seeing the eradication of slavery in supply chains – something we must all strive for.
As supply chains have globalised and demand for cheap products and ever cheaper labour has continued to increase, the risk of slavery in supply chains, in the UK and internationally, has become much greater. Globalisation has made way for longer and more complex supply chains reaching all corners of the globe. With extended chains of accountability, rigorous monitoring of production processes is not an easy task. However, when man is being enslaved and human lives are at stake, no challenge is too difficult to try and overcome.
The slavery of citizens and exploitation of workers is only profitable insofar as somebody is willing to buy the goods these workers produce. In most cases, the immediate buyer of such goods is another company. Consequently, the behaviour of buying companies, particularly those at the top of a supply chain, can be an important determinant of standards throughout the chain. It goes without saying therefore that those at the top ought to know what practices are carried out within their supply chains, and I commend the Consumer Goods Forum for bringing focused action to see this materialise among its members.
If we ever hope to see the end of modern slavery and the brutal exploitation inflicted upon its victims, we need total commitment from leading businesses. The private sector plays a crucial part in the fight against forced labour and can be the real driver of change. Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act calls on businesses to showcase what they are doing to ensure their workers are treated fairly and their consumers are purchasing ethically made products. This is not to be taken lightly. After all, we simply cannot allow people to be treated as disposable commodities in the name of business, and we must not wait until tomorrow to act.
Through the Resolution on Forced Labour, I believe there is potential to see harmonised supply chains that set the standard globally. By working closely with other industries, with governments and with civil society, the Consumer Goods Forum could achieve this ambitious goal. It’s target of delivering specific action plans and promoting decent working conditions is not only commendable but also constructive. Such measures will bring lasting change where it is needed most.
Unfortunately, when slavery is hidden in supply chains, it is too often seen as a corporate risk or perhaps an auditing problem, and not for the crime that it is. By bringing together manufacturers and retailers around this issue, the Resolution on Forced Labour is creating space for this to be viewed as criminal practice, not just malpractice – yet another significant step forward in the fight against slavery.
Furthermore, under the Resolution, The Consumer Goods Forum has rightly introduced targeted actions in geographic areas of concern. This is something I too deem indispensable and have prioritised in my role as Commissioner. I have researched and designed upstream activities in Nigeria, Vietnam and Albania, all of which are top source countries for UK victims of slavery. Effective prevention must start in countries of origin to stop vulnerable people from being exploited in the first place. Ethical labour practices are a key aspect and anywhere fuelling the trade in human beings must be fought.
The Resolution on Forced Labour is a powerful tool that complements UK legislation and could ultimately make way for the eradication of forced labour in supply chains. No business can achieve this on its own, but through cooperation and collaboration, the Resolution allows corporates to share best practice, learn from one another and bring a change in culture. It is my hope that this leads to businesses moving away from profit being the number one indicator of how we judge success. Instead, how we treat fellow man must be a deciding factor because no profit margin is worth a human life. As the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I commend the Consumer Goods Forum for their leadership in this and look forward to seeing this Resolution on Forced Labour playing a major part in the eradication of modern slavery.