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Empowering business communities to reduce the risks of modern slavery

Modern slavery is present in many industries, permeating every step of the supply chain. The latest estimates indicate that almost 50 million people worldwide were living in modern slavery in 2021 on any given day, and the numbers are growing. Between 2016 and 2021, ten million more people became victims of modern slavery, with women and children being the most vulnerable. These numbers include those who are made to work against their will and those forced into marriage. Both apply to situations where a person is exploited and cannot refuse or leave due to danger, violence, fraud, abuse of power or other forms of coercion.

With the global estimate including 27.6 million in forced labour, modern slavery is a risk businesses must face and prioritise to help eliminate. Over 22 million account for those in a forced marriage. Crises such as the global pandemic, armed conflict and climate change have led to disruptions in employment and education, increasing poverty and unsafe migration, and contributing to rising domestic and gender-based violence. Most forced labour happens in the private economy. Among the millions in forced labour exploitation on any given day, 86 per cent are in the private sector (including 23 per cent in forced commercial sexual exploitation), and 14 per cent is state-imposed forced labour. Given the numbers, it’s inevitable that a business, anywhere in the world, can be affected.

Money Talks

Forced labour affects many sectors of the economy, making it a reality for many companies whose operations and supply chains are at risk. And the numbers show that it is becoming more and more prevalent. There are 17.3 million adults and children in forced labour imposed by the private sector (excluding commercial sexual exploitation), accounting for almost two-thirds of all people in forced labour. Big and small businesses linked to the broader market economy are affected. It’s evident in the food and beverage sector, in factories and plants, where workers are forced to work long hours in appalling conditions to pay back debts or for little or no wages. Human trafficking occurs in spas, massage parlours and nail salons, where women are coerced into working against their will, often in dangerous conditions and made to live in cramped, dirty, or unsafe situations. Technological advances increase the threat of modern slavery, made possible by online platforms for ride-sharing, home-letting, and social networking. Banking and finance are also affected, from risks in money laundering to financing illicit activity through loans or investments. Manufacturing, hospitality, fishing, agriculture, construction and the mining sector have not escaped unscathed from the impact of modern slavery.

While there is an increasing commitment to tackling modern slavery, it remains a prominent issue that prevents a successful realisation of business sustainability initiatives. Identifying incidents of modern slavery in a company’s operations can be challenging, especially if there is a limited ability to monitor and track a product through the supply chain. But, there are huge risks and consequences when a business has not done due diligence in assessing, identifying, preventing and mitigating the risk associated with slavery in their supply chains. The legal and financial implications are far-reaching, and while the effects of reputational damage and loss of consumer trust are more complex to quantify, they are also at a high risk.

Due Diligence in Ethical & Fair Hiring Practices

Diligence in applying and enforcing ethical and fair hiring practices to operations and supply chains makes businesses accountable and helps promote better recruitment industry standards. Importantly, it helps protect workers from abusive and fraudulent practices such as extortionate fees and related costs imposed by shady recruitment agencies and other employment intermediaries. Migrant workers using agencies or brokers to secure employment in a foreign country are often subject to flawed recruitment practices, requiring them to pay agency and broker fees. These typically low-income workers may be asked to cover travel, visa and administrative costs and other unspecified fees and service charges, which often have no connection to the genuine costs of delivering these services. Workers may take out loans against the promise of potential future earnings, which can lead to debt bondage and vulnerability to further exploitation, including forced labour. Evidence shows that recruitment fees put workers at a significantly higher risk of forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking. As part of their efforts to develop an ethical migrant worker recruitment policy, more companies, including Apple, Patagonia and HP Inc., have introduced a zero-recruitment fee policy for migrant workers.

As more businesses strive to address modern slavery, countries are introducing legislation requiring companies to stop and reduce the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland), and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act introduced crimes of human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery offences, as well as provisions aimed at preventing modern slavery and protecting its victims. The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 is federal legislation that seeks to prevent and eliminate modern slavery in supply chains and operations through transparency. After delays due to the pandemic and two national elections, Canada recently enacted legislation to fight modern slavery in supply chains. New Zealand has also announced drafting new legislation to improve transparency and accountability in a crackdown on modern slavery. France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and the EU have adopted (or are in the process of adopting) supply chain due diligence laws as governments continue to enforce practices to ensure supply chain transparency and prevent human rights violations and modern slavery risks.

Identify, Manage & Mitigate Modern Slavery Risks

While governments and the private sector introduce laws and measures to clean up work practices and ensure transparency in supply chains and compliance, independent organisations collaborate with diverse partners to move the needle. The Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based non-profit, supports companies around the world to help identify and eliminate forced labour in the private sector. Their members can access tools and resources, consultancy support and training, and connect with a global network of professionals addressing modern slavery issues. Similarly, Be Slavery Free focuses on providing resources to empower others to stop slavery, collaborating with industries, educating consumers and advocating for stronger regulations and policies. CS&A International supports NGOs such as The Mekong Club and Be Slavery Free in crisis management and coordinated efforts to address modern slavery risks across diverse industries. Activities such as training, crisis simulation exercises and issues, and stakeholder mapping help to facilitate a more coordinated effort across all parties to address the risks associated with modern slavery. Matt Friedman, CEO of The Mekong Club, says, “Our partnership with CS&A International has yielded significant benefits in crisis management. Leveraging the expertise of CS&A’s seasoned professionals and their wealth of knowledge, our association members gained profound insights into the intricacies of crisis response.” He explains, “This newfound understanding has empowered companies to take informed and decisive actions when faced with crises, significantly enhancing their preparedness.”

Employees are a powerful resource for companies with supply chain risk. Training and educating staff and the supply chain about modern slavery helps increase awareness and prevent it from happening. With the enactment of legislation and regulations for supply chain due diligence processes, companies need to monitor activities, including supply chains, prospects, customers, employees and assets, to demonstrate compliance and their commitment to transparency to the public, investors, the government, and other such stakeholders. Companies can guide their workforce in spotting signs of modern slavery, such as restricted movement, poor working conditions, and withholding pay. Employees should also know how to report it without fear of repercussions.

Modern slavery remains a real risk for business today. However, there is a genuine commitment by many stakeholders towards creating a slave-free world. Governments worldwide have passed legislation to enforce compliance with supply chain transparency and prevent human rights violations and modern slavery risks. Employers are introducing due diligence in their hiring practices within their operations, supply chains, and related recruitment channels, paving the way for change and improving industry standards. NGOs are working with industry to advocate for change.

Support in conducting a crisis readiness assessment, crisis training using simulation exercises and digital tools, and helping meet compliance requirements can allow any organisation to improve processes and systems. By enhancing resilience and vigilance, we can all work together to be part of the solution that will help to end modern slavery.

A version of this article first appeared in the Crisis Response Journal.

Caroline Sapriel is the Managing Partner of CS&A International. With over 30 years of experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognised as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customised, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level.

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