First published on the Finance Against Trafficking website. Click here.
“How many slaves do you own?” This was the confronting question asked by keynote speaker, Jean Baderschneider (Polaris Project) right before the day came to an end. Even more confronting was the response to her own question: “I own 77… because of what I wear and the way I live my life”.
In a way, this approach to presenting the issue of human trafficking had more meaning for me than “the 21million” – a frequently cited, yet likely modest, estimate of the number of trafficked persons around the world today. It was more graspable and it certainly gave me something to think about. Considering that I probably have more awareness than the average consumer about the severity of human trafficking, forced or bonded labour, and modern slavery in today’s world, even I can’t say that I make the most informed decisions every single time I decide to buy a product. The truth is consumers do not have the right kind of information at their fingertips to be constantly making the right purchasing decisions. Of course, consumers can influence change in a market through their preferences, but at the very heart of it consumers ought to be able to trust the brands they buy.
There is no easy way to sum up the breadth of issues touched on throughout the day but the overriding message was loud and clear: when contemplating global supply chains, “one cannot ignore the issue of human trafficking”. Moreover, businesses have a responsibility to address the issue of human trafficking in their supply chains. However difficult and complex supply chains are, businesses are best placed to ensure that both the demand and supply for trafficked labour is significantly reduced, if not brought down to zero. Moreover, no matter how hidden the crime is and how institutionalised it has become in certain regions and sectors, there are means and an ever growing number of trusty tools, to help a business get to the source and leverage influence. Not least the new online, question-based tool produced by Finance Against Trafficking called ChainChecker.
Truth be told, even before the day had come I had already channelled all my excitement into the thought of being within reach of Ruggie, the protagonist of all things Business and Human Rights. All I had written in my diary under April 11th was: “RUGGIE” in big capital letters. His call for Leaders and Action left its impression, but, as it turned out, by no means was it the only highlight of the summit. The day provided for lively panel discussions, brought up probing questions, and unveiled some astonishing facts and statistics. Did you know that if all trafficked workers in the seafood sector in Thailand were saved, the industry would collapse? Or that 1 in 3 trafficked labourers in the UK work in the food sector?
Above all the day provided practical information for businesses on how to identify areas of risk and how to mitigate those risks. There were organisations who seek through diverse means to eradicate the involvement of agencies or middlemen, who frequently facilitate trafficking by drawing a person in with a tempting job offer under false pretences and subsequently leaving them in a completely vulnerable position. Kohl Gill, CEO of LaborVoices Inc, made evident the potential for technology to empower workers with its application: a font of real-time data related to social and environmental issues in the workplace enabling workers, employers, and purchasing organisations to be aware and make better decisions. Beate Andrees set out the ILO’s latest strategic objectives and reminded us of the several conventions already in place to help guide us to tackle this pandemic. Amongst many more, there was also Finance Against Trafficking’s very own Liliya Gelemerova, who discussed the link between money laundering and trafficking, the importance of due diligence and the red flags financial institutions should be looking out for.
From the investor side, Stephanie Maier (Head of Corporate Responsibility at Aviva Investors) stated that one should never underestimate the power of a question. Although I entirely agree, I wondered if it is exactly because of the power of a question that businesses tend to avoid asking it. After all, ignorance is bliss.
However, this is increasingly becoming less of a choice, even if companies don’t act voluntarily. The day was peppered with references to the various laws which have come into play or are undergoing the legislative process both in the US, the UK and across the EU. Even if companies can be in compliance by disclosing that they are doing nothing to address trafficking and human rights issues, for example, there are only so many years they can keep that up without feeling the pressure to change.
Marcela Manubens – Global Vice President for Social Impact from Unilever – in particular said companies cannot do it on their own: this is not a matter of developing a competitive advantage but achieving transparency, and policy and regulation need to be welcomed on this matter. Keynote speaker Jean Baderschneider who was once in charge of the ExxonMobil supply chain gave reasons why both governments and businesses should care – they are losing out on:
– Reputation as countries /Brand value as companies
– Tax base / Revenue
As a good place to start, she proposed an overhaul of procurement practices. Rather than focus on auditing and certification, develop robust supplier qualification and risk assessment processes from the outset. More importantly, one must recognise that the work of cleaning up a supply chain is ongoing; it is never done.
To end on the words of Ruggie: conventions and written instruments on their own don’t cut it – those 21million are still out there. Leadership and action within the business community, along with the sensible use of its collective purchasing power, are the real levers for change.