Many of the products we buy and use every day were made by people in slavery. There is evidence of slavery in different stages of supply chains from the production of raw materials, for example cocoa, cotton, or fishing, to manufacturing every-day goods such as mobile phones or garments and even at the final stage, when the product reaches the market.
The lack of transparency in supply chains increases the risk of slavery
Typically the final product you purchase has passed through a long chain of producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers who have all participated in its production, delivery and sale. It can be very difficult to track a component of an end product back to a particular producer, for example cotton in a T-shirt back to a particular cotton farm.
Because of the complexity of supply chains, it is rarely possible to be certain that a product has or has not been produced using slavery.
However, the way in which companies operate can increase the likelihood of slavery in the final product. If a brand gives its supplier a large order with a short turnaround time beyond the suppliers’ capacity, this could increase the risk of slavery as the supplier may subcontract work to factories that are not regulated by the same standards as the supplier.
Company buyers may negotiate such low prices that suppliers are forced to push down the price it pays for the materials it needs, which can have a knock-on effect on those involved in the production of raw materials, increasing the likelihood of the use of slavery.
Companies have a moral responsibility of ensuring that no slavery has been used in producing the products they sell. This should apply not only to goods produced in their own factories but also to their suppliers, and suppliers of their suppliers, all the way down the supply chain.
In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act passed in 2015 obliged businesses with annual turnover of £36m or higher to disclose the steps they take to tackle slavery in their supply chains under the Transparency in Supply Chains Provision (TISC). While the Act was largely welcomed by civil society, serious concerns have been raised about its limitations.
Governments and international bodies should introduce and implement legislation that makes it compulsory for businesses to report on their supply chains. For now, some companies have begun to produce statements on a voluntary basis. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a registry.
What can you do?
- Consumers could and should use their consumer power to put pressure on companies to produce statements and ensure their supply chains are slavery free.
- Join our campaigns putting pressure on companies to ensure there is no forced labour in their supply chains.
- Ask questions when you shop: what guarantees can your retailer provide that the product it sells hasn’t been tainted by forced or child labour.
- Write a letter to the company headquarters asking what measures the company is taking to identify, prevent and end the use of forced labour and slavery from their supply chain.
- Try to buy products marked with one of the fair trade schemes. This, even though not perfect, is the best available guarantee that a product has not been produced using forced labour because goods can only be Fairtrade certified if they have complied with Fairtrade standards, which incorporate international human rights standards.
Why not boycott?
Anti-Slavery very rarely, if ever, joins the calls to boycott specific companies, goods or countries.
Boycotts can actually make the situation worse and undermine the economy of an already poor country. They could hurt those employers making their employees work in slavery-like conditions but they could also hurt those who are not exploiting their workers, and worsen the poverty that is one of the root causes of the problem.
However, we do call for a boycott of companies purchasing cotton from Uzbekistan. In this particular case the boycott of a state-sponsored system of forced labour is not likely to make the situation worse for those affected by it.