Walking into a basement lecture room at SOAS took me right back to my days at UCL – when a young, enthusiastic and perhaps less cynical version of myself used to tag along to extra talks on emerging global issues and challenges. The evening, which took place last week, lived up to expectation, with a fantastic panel and a crowd filled mostly with students eager to make their passions heard. Many interesting points were raised, some indeed quite controversial. Altogether it made for stimulating discussion and thought-provoking responses from the esteemed panel, which included Humphrey Hawksley from the BBC, Hannah Shoesmith from the Ethical Trade Initiative, and, of course, CLT envirolaw’s very own Colleen Theron, who went in representation of Stop the Traffik and our partnership organisation, Finance Against Trafficking.
The evening was about the endemic yet underplayed issue of slavery, a controversial term in itself. Hard facts of what is going on around us and astonishing stories and experiences were shared as part of the debate. This is not to mention the fuzziness around exact numbers (an estimated 30 million of people in forced labour), confusion and split opinions on where the responsibility to prevent the crime lies, and a lack of common understanding around definitions of words such as “trafficked labour” , “forced labour”, and the more sensationalist “slavery”.
The crux of what was said is that the issue is not just about the sex trade, which is the conclusion many people jump to – the issue exists in several sectors, from agriculture, to apparel production, mining and construction. It is very difficult as a consumer to make the right choice around what goods to buy and be certain that they are not inadvertently supporting slavery –there is currently not enough information or transparency around it for governments and companies to expect us to make a judgment. Nonetheless, the power of consumers and civil society in pushing to make business look at this issue more closely is undeniable. Stop the Traffik has noted this from its Make Fashion Traffik Free campaign, for example, having had some major retailers and even SME suppliers in the apparel industry reach out to the organisation for support as a result of consumers raising awareness.
The audience and to some extent even the panel seemed divided on the issue of responsibility.
A member of the audience made the point that business is just out there to make profit and that the responsibility lies wholly with governments. Of course, the main driver for business is the bottom line – but there can be no doubt that the focus on businesses and their accountability is changing. My thoughts are that one can’t rely wholly on governments – I come from a country where the GDP is less than the revenue of some multinationals that invest in it – who has greater bargaining power in these situations? Who has the greater capacity to act as a vehicle for best practice in this scenario?
Or then there are countries were governments are virtually absent, the laws may be there but are not enforced, or, even worse, the governments themselves are complicit in systematic human rights abuses. Who takes responsibility then? I have previously shared views that these could be issues addressed in bilateral investment treaties between nations, along with environmental protection and other sustainability related matters – but there are issues around extraterritorial jurisdiction here and at a global level this is not effective as multinationals can relocate and shift operations to seek out the country with the worst standards. Businesses need to meet some basic benchmarks such as the UN Guiding Principles, irrespective of government.
From the experience of those that work with business, the issue is that we are up against businesses saying it is near enough impossible to trace beyond the first tier of suppliers, because supply chains are so complex. This may be so, but if we work on the presumption that virtually every product has been tarnished by slavery at some point in the supply chain then at least acknowledging the issue and taking the first steps to managing the risk can only be an improvement.
As Humphrey Hawksley said – ultimately these are all just excuses not to get to the source; all you really need is a plane ticket to go and have a look for yourself. Though no doubt easier said than done, it is true. Even simple desktop research as a starting point can quickly point an investigation in the right direction about major risks areas as well as the right organisations to seek help from. Hannah Shoesmith commented on the fact that companies need to build up a toolbox and stressed that audits are only one tool in the box, particularly given that “audits have become an industry in itself”.
Another interesting point raised was the potential for retrospective litigation brought against ex company executives in say 10 years’ time – where their companies have been complicit in human rights abuses so grave for so many years or even decades, that they may be singled out, made responsible and face jail time. It sounds extreme and is pure speculation, of course… but think about what happened with those involved in running the Nazi regime, and more recently with Jimmy Saville, noted Hawksley. He seemed to think the US was the go-to place for this; traditionally maybe so, but the recent decision in the case of Kiobel (2013) narrowed the scope of the Alient Tort Act and implies the floodgates are closing. At a conference held earlier this year at Clifford Chance on Business and Human Rights and the financial sector, it was implied that the paradigm in Europe may in fact be shifting slowly in the opposite direction from the US.
Regardless of future class action cases, the real, current, and growing operational, reputational and legal risks means getting to that source is becoming an increasingly real option for businesses. We just need an “integrated approach” as Colleen Theron mentioned, where governments, individuals (both as consumers and as part of civil society), and businesses, act as the eyes and ears of their respective communities. I would add voices in there, too.