No supply chain is free of risks associated with modern slavery – this is the message we heard at our Sustain conference, which brought together senior procurement figures, representatives of international organizations and NGOs. Much is being done in terms of international and national regulations to eradicate the problem, and businesses worldwide are becoming increasingly committed to sustainable procurement. However, to make a real difference, more emphasis needs to be placed on truly understanding the plight of the people who end up in forced labor.
A Global Problem
More than 40 million people are currently living in modern slavery, with Asia accounting for two-thirds of the victims. But it happens in other parts of the world as well, including countries such as the U.K. In fact, a recent article in The Guardian, pointed out, quoting the National Crime Agency, that there was a 35 percent annual rise in the number of suspected slavery victims found in the country. And labor exploitation, rather than sexual exploitation is the most common type of slavery observed.
Hidden in the Supply Chain
But it is rarely easy to discover modern slavery in a supply chain and businesses may for a long time remain unaware of the problem. “People, who are caught up in modern slavery won’t tell you they’re slaves,” Rosey Hurst, founder and director of Impactt, a U.K.-based NGO, pointed out during Sustain. Those who end up in forced labor are driven by the same things in life as everyone else: They seek money and the certainty of money, respect – for instance, from family back home, and a better life for their children.
Speaking at the conference Shayne Tyler, operations executive at Manor Fresh, used an intriguing metaphor to illustrate the problem. He asked the audience: “What do boiling a frog and slavery have in common?” Apparently, when you put a frog into boiling water it will jump out. However, if you put it into cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will stay in the pot until it boils. The same, he said, is true of forced labor. Driven by the need to support their family and full of hopes for the future, ordinary people make a conscious choice to migrate in search of employment only to find themselves in situations of distress that gradually deteriorate and which they cannot get out of.
Recruitment Fee – The Start of a Downward Spiral
This downward spiral typically starts with a payment which workers have to make right at the start in order to get a job. These recruitment fees can be exorbitant, making up as much as 62 percent of a worker’s anticipated wages. In Taiwan, for instance, migrant workers pay brokers up to US$ 7,000 to secure employment. And this does not include the cost of a visa or travel.
To secure the funds, migrant workers may sell any valuables they have back home or borrow money from third-parties, oftentimes at extremely high interest rates. If they then find it hard to repay they become subject to threats and violence. As a result, recruitment fee debt bondage holds more people in modern slavery than anything else.
Doing the Right Thing
So what do we need to look out for? How do we recognize modern slavery and what is the best course of action? The Guardian article quoted above provides the following definition of modern slavery from the 2016 Global Slavery Index: “Situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception.” Speakers at Sustain, meanwhile, identified four factors that are typically present: Deception, coercion, isolation and lack of freedom of movement.
To an outsider, these may not be obvious but business should always be more alert if there is a large proportion of migrants employed in their supply chains or if they operate in countries which allow recruitment fees. However, the key thing is trust. It may be wise to work with NGOs who can connect with workers on the local level to truly understand their situation. Trust is the key word here. But it’s vital to remember that –as Tyler put it, “If you do nothing, nothing gets done. If you do the wrong thing, you impact the most vulnerable.”