Under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders noted to “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking… and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.” (Sustainable Development Goal 8.7) Yet, in 2022, we are nowhere near close to reaching these goals.
Forced labour, unfortunately, still affects many people. According to the ILO, forced labour is all work or service exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered themselves voluntarily. On any given day, in 2016, there were 5.9 adult victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 adults globally and 4.4 child victims for every 1,000 children in the world. Meanwhile, the latest global estimates show that 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, accounting for almost 1 in 10 of all children worldwide. This means that forced labour is happening all around us.
Vulnerable groups of people are forced to work and produce goods. In this regard, modern slavery (which also includes forced labour) contributes to the production of our clothes, electronic devices and food. People are forced to work in mines, factories, and even offices, for no pay. Farmers often make their children work in the agriculture industry because they cannot hire proper help. The risk of modern slavery is exceptionally high in Africa. Over 80% of sub-Saharan African countries feature in the two highest-risk categories, including Kenya and Nigeria, two of the region’s three largest economies. According to the African Union Ten Year Action Plan on Eradication of Child Labour, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Africa (2020-2030), in 2016, 72 million African children were in child labour, and nearly 3 million adults were in forced labour; another 5.8 million people were in forced marriages.
There are many reasons why companies are a crucial part of the conversation in the fight against forced labour. Companies with medium to large supply chains are more likely to be at risk of having forced labour in their operations. As most large enterprises form the first tier of the supply chain, it should be their responsibility to ensure the entire chain down to the last level is free of forced labour. Moreover, it is critical to highlight the strength of corporations, which are more powerful than governments in many cases. In 2018, Global Justice Now found that of the top 200 wealthiest economic structures, 157 were corporations. In 2019, ABC Finance found that the world’s ten richest companies have a combined market capitalisation of £6.8 trillion ($8.8 trillion), making them the third-largest country based on GDP in the world. Therefore, corporations’ domination of the labour market inevitably makes them vital players in addressing forced labour.
In countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, regulations that require businesses to report on modern slavery are developing quickly. For example, the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 in the U.K. combined several criminal offences into a single piece of legislation. The law requires organisations conducting business in the U.K. with global revenues of at least £36 million ($45 million) to produce and publish an annual slavery and trafficking statement each year. In Europe, some legislative developments include the Taxonomy Regulation ( which establishes a sustainability classification system) and the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (which creates an obligation on financial advisers and other regulated firms to disclose information on various ESG considerations).
Also, the EU is in the process of introducing compulsory human rights and due diligence laws. On 10 March 2021, the European Parliament voted by a large majority for new EU laws that would oblige companies to conduct environmental and human rights due diligence within their value chains. Further, there are international guidelines and frameworks for addressing forced labour, such as the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct and the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights.
These regulations and frameworks have influenced some large multinational companies to take human rights in their businesses more seriously. However, whilst these legislative developments go some way to ensuring that large companies are mitigating forced labour, the issue could be better tackled if there is a more robust response from African companies, with local regulations to ensure compliance.
AFRICA’S RESPONSE AND THE NEED FOR A HUMAN RIGHTS LED APPROACH
When reading the sustainability reports of a snapshot of African companies, what seems to be missing is awareness of the issue of forced labour, its root causes and how to address this. This is unsurprising as African countries are behind in regulating companies’ actions against forced labour. When sustainable initiatives are being discussed, climate change is often the focus of the agenda. However, forced labour is just as damaging, and addressing its root causes could help reduce climate change effects, as modern slavery practices contribute to environmental destruction. It is commendable that some action is being taken, but companies must ensure that their ESG responses and initiatives include vital terms to highlight risks in their supply chain. They must also ensure that they address the root causes of these issues instead of placing a band-aid on them.
Africa’s position regarding ESG is unique. The exploitation of African resources has negatively impacted the continent, leaving countries with significant challenges. Further, whilst Africa stands to be the most affected by climate change, it contributes only 3% to global emissions. However, for modern slavery and forced labour to be adequately addressed, there must be a multi-stakeholder response to the issue. It must go beyond focusing only on multinationals headquartered in countries with local ESG reporting and compliance requirements. Action cannot only come from large multinationals; African organisations must also embrace sustainability, especially regarding modern slavery.
Call For Change
There is a shift in conversation in the prioritisation of sustainable governance. With investors taking this more seriously, it will benefit multinationals in Africa and African companies to address modern slavery and forced labour as material issues.
A company’s cultural shift is most significant when there is engagement and support from the top with CEOs, directors and managers leading the change. Corporate boards need to set the tone and give strategic direction to the rest of the company. Further, for anti-modern slavery efforts to be adequate, companies must engage with local partners and communities. Without being able to contextualise modern slavery and understand the issues of the relevant communities, all anti-slavery approaches such as building schools or wells to help a community are minimal. Charitable development projects are not nearly enough, as more often than not, they fail to address the problems faced by the communities. This also contributes to why African companies of all sizes need to participate in the fight against modern slavery.
African corporate leaders need to act now to include responsible business practices. The perception of ESG as corporate charitable work needs to end. Modern slavery is rife. It needs to be an issue of concern for foreign multinationals in Africa, Africa-own businesses of all sizes and industries and all businesses with operations in Africa.
If you found this interesting, sign up for our upcoming webinar on the 2nd of March, on ‘How African Organisations are embedding business and human rights in their ESG practice’.
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