Monday, November 25, 2013

The business of modern-day slavery

Events last week in the UK, where three women were rescued from what appears to be a 30 year-long situation of forced domestic labour situation, have focused a great deal of attention on "modern-day slavery". But it is hardly a one-off. Issues of forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery are increasingly gaining public attention. Business, however, has been slow to engage in the conversation.

Perhaps this is no surprise given that no company wants to run the risk of being tainted with the spectre of slavery. But most of the big modern slavery stories involve business. From children forced to harvest cotton in Uzbekistan to labourers enslaved to fish in the waters of New Zealand, hardly a week goes by without a new story of extreme exploitation being splashed across the media. The appalling treatment of migrant construction workers in Qatar the build up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup has gained more exposure than most, likely because of the headline claim that construction for the World Cup will leave 4000 migrant workers dead. It is a heart-stopping statistic.

With all this noise around modern slavery, much of it at the hands of campaigners such as Anti-Slavery International, Free the Slaves, and Walk Free (who are responsible for the recently launched Global Slavery Index), governments at least are gradually starting to act. The UK Government is already in the process of drafting a modern slavery bill to make the complex legal situation around the issue more clear for prosecutors. The US has also launched initiatives to tackle human trafficking in the supply chains of companies and government contractors. Canada too now has a national action plan to combat human trafficking whilst Brazil has perhaps gone the furthest of any country in seeking to tackle the problem.

Such measures are to be applauded, but there's still a long way to go in effectively combating the worst forms of human exploitation. And one crucial player that so far hasn't brought much to the party is business. Compared with many other social and environmental issues, modern slavery has not seen much enthusiastic response from the business community. Although virtually all corporate codes of conduct prohibit any kind of forced labour, the issue is rarely given any particular attention. Most businesses simply assume that it doesn't affect them. However, the torrent of news stories across various countries and industries suggests otherwise. Companies just aren't looking hard enough to find their connection to modern slavery.

David Arkless, formerly President of Corporate and Government Affairs at the global temp agency Manpower, is probably the most visible and articulate member of the business community involved in anti-slavery efforts. He said last week that he was "frustrated by the lack of involvement of corporations in efforts to ensure that their supply chains are verified against the use of abused labour and that most of the big corporations of the world have not amended both their financial, expense and human resource policies.” You can understand his frustration. Most business leaders are simply burying their heads in the sand.

This is a major stumbling block because most forms of modern slavery either involve business or affect it in some way. After all, forced labour is a particular way of doing business - a morally regnant one for sure, but a business practice all the same. Even illegal industries such as prostitution and drug cultivation, both of which have had numerous documented cases of trafficking and forced labour, rely on business principles and come into contact with legitimate businesses at some stage. The bottom line is that we have to understand modern slavery as a business if we are to make any real sense of it and take appropriate steps to prevent it.

The research base exploring the business of modern slavery is especially thin. So I was pleased last week to help launch a new report funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the business models and supply chains found in forced labour in the UK. It was a fascinating project to be involved in, and along with my co-authors, I'm hoping that it really helps to shine a light on the economics of modern slavery in developed country contexts.

One of our main findings is that although forced labour is often described as a hidden crime, it is not as difficult to unearth as many in the UK, including businesses and government, seem to believe. As my co-author Genevieve LeBaron and I say in a recent article for The Guardian: "The problem is not so much that we cannot find forced labour; it is that either we choose not to look where it is most likely to occur or we simply misclassify those being exploited as criminals rather than victims. A new approach to detecting and enforcing forced labour is necessary. To pinpoint its occurrence we need to start by examining the forces of supply and demand."

Much still needs to be done to really understand how these economic forces lead to such extreme forms of exploitation. But the good news is that we're making good progress. The challenge will be getting legislators and business leaders alike to take our findings seriously.


Photo by Junaidrao. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

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