What businesses can do to end slavery

Director Aidan McQuade on the positive role businesses can play to end slavery following ITV’s mica mining exposure.

Cocoal is often affected by slavery
Cocoa supply chains are often affected by slavery.

23 February 2017

ITV’s exposure of the realities of forced child labour in Indian mica mining reminds us of what a persistent and extensive problem contemporary slavery remains. It also reminds us that it can affect businesses with supply chains reaching all corners of the globe.

Business leaders may feel powerless in the face of the social and political systems that underpin contemporary forms of slavery and child labour. It would be foolish for anyone to expect any business to be able to solve all such problems, even only in their own supply chains.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognise this, stating that it is the responsibility of businesses to respect the human rights of workers, and it is the responsibility of governments to protect those rights. And within this framework I believe that businesses can do more.

The first thing that businesses can and should do is to commit to use whatever power is at their disposal to end the problems that they can end. This will not be everything, but by ensuring transparency in supply chains businesses will not only be able to identify what are the risks of human rights abuses that they face, but understand why these risks exist.

In Malaysia, for example, the forced labour of migrants is a particular problem in part because of the tied visa regulations that give employers considerable powers over workers. Ensuring that workers have all the necessary paperwork from day one of their employment to ensure they can leave that employment of their own volition if they so wish would reduce the risks of exploitation.

Similarly businesses should refuse to work with labour providers who charge workers fees, often of such exorbitance that they effectively render the workers in bondage.

Secondly, businesses must recognise that the challenges of human rights in supply chains are pre-competitive. No business should be seeking a competitive advantage based on lowering their labour costs to close to zero by effectively enslaving workers.

But likewise no business should be seeking commercial advantage based on simply ensuring that the workers in their supply chain are treated as human beings. That should be the common starting point for all. But in the absence of this there is considerable risk that those who see a commercial advantage in an ethical reputation may be tempted to cover up information about abuses in the supply chains rather than confront and rectify the abuses.

Third, businesses should be prepared to recognise when a problem is beyond their power and speak publicly about that. The child labour that is so endemic in the West African agricultural sector is in part due to the fact that there are too few schools and often these schools are of a poor quality. Again this is a matter that governments should rectify.

Which brings me to my fourth point. Businesses must not be coy about their political voice. Politicians tend to pay more attention to business leaders than to those of non-governmental organisation such as myself. And I get the impression that business leaders are not shy about speaking on a range of what might be called traditional business- political matters, such as tax or trade policy.

But with the globalisation of the international political economy it is important to recognise that human rights and development policy can also have commercial and legal implications for businesses. Businesses should commit to doing what is in their power to end slavery in their supply chains, and sometimes the most important power that they should exercise is that of demanding appropriate action from governments.

In the final analysis slavery is a human institution. It can be changed by human action. The great strides against slavery in the course of human history have occurred when businesses have joined with governments, trades unions and civil society to reject this form of violence against vulnerable human beings. When we act together, we can overcome.


Find our more about risk of slavery in your supply chains and how Anti-Slavery can help: