Some 35.8m people are estimated to be living in slavery today

Some 35.8m people are estimated to be living in slavery today

Leslie Johnston, executive director of the C&A Foundation and a board director at GoodWeave, believes the UK's Modern Slavery Act – which obligates large companies to report and declare their steps to address slavery – can only do so much. She is instead calling on businesses to take a broader approach to abolish slavery within supply chains and engage consumers to create change.

35.8 million. That is the number of men, women and children – estimated by the Walk Free Foundation – living in slavery today.

How can this be? In today's (relatively) enlightened world, it's hard to imagine such egregious violation of human rights. But it exists, despite slavery being illegal worldwide.  

But that can change. Just last month, the UK added an important reporting requirement to its Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was passed earlier this year, and is the first national legislation in Europe to address slavery and trafficking.

Under this Act, companies with more than GBP36m (US$53.8m) in sales and operations in the UK are required to publish a statement on their website outlining the steps they are taking to address modern slavery in their supply chains and to protect the millions of workers at risk. 

As the Act states: "There are far too many people in the world being treated as commodities. There are also far too many organisations ignoring such abuses or who are knowingly responsible for policies and practices that result in workers being subjected to modern slavery in their operations."

This follows the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, in effect as of January 2012, which requires large companies (over US$100m in sales) to disclose their actions to prevent or eradicate slavery in their supply chains. And, this month, Norway and Niger became the first two signatories of the United Nations treaty aimed at helping "millions of children, women and men reclaim their freedom and dignity." 

Such bold support by our elected leaders is positive. The right legislation can nudge companies into acting to prevent and eradicate slavery. Further, the reporting requirement of the Modern Slavery Act can also help us – the billions of consumers who buy the products and services likely touched by this crime – to make the right decisions. We want to know what's hidden in the complex and opaque supply chains of our favourite brands. Or so one would like to think.

Unfortunately, this legislative push toward transparency may not be enough.

Consumer pressure

In early November – just after the UK added the section on transparency to its Global Slavery Act 2015 – YouGov and the legal firm Winckworth Sherwood conducted a survey of 1,678 British consumers and found something shocking.

Only 7% of those surveyed stated that ethical concerns about slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking have the same or greater influence on purchasing decisions than price or quality. On the contrary, price (76%) and quality (62%) were rated as the most important factors when making a purchase.  

In other words, we still want inexpensive clothing. If this is the case, then prominent statements on corporate websites are not going to sway us – the consumers – to make an ethical choice. Rather, companies need to step up and stand for ethical supply chains, free of trafficking and forced or bonded labour.

This new legislation – and the subsequent reporting requirements – is a strong first step. But as Verité (an organisation working to help people around the world work under safe, fair, and legal conditions) shows, this also requires companies to go beyond a traditional compliance approach. To tackle the hidden scourge of forced labour, we need a broader approach – one which can detect the trafficking and bonded labour that simply is not detectable through a standard factory audit.

Insight from other industries

For inspiration, we can look to the hand-woven carpet sector. GoodWeave is an example of how the establishment of a standard, the traceability it offers, and subsequent market demand can reduce child labour. Set up in 1994 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi, GoodWeave first established its standard that same year, which certifies that no child labour was used in the making of each rug. GoodWeave's network of auditors then regularly inspect and monitor producers, and its programmatic teams work to rescue and rehabilitate children who are found working, as shown in GoodWeave's 'Stand with Sanju' campaign.

What is unique about this approach is that it both creates consumer demand for child labour-free carpets (through the GoodWeave label) and works within each affected community to address the root causes of the problem itself. The model works because big retailers – such as Macys and Target – see the value in offering its certified rugs to their customers. Since its founding, over 11m certified carpets have been sold in Europe and North America, and the number of children forced to work in this industry has decreased from 1m to 250,000.   

Thanks to the right sourcing decisions being made by companies, children like Sanju have a chance at a better life. Furthermore, GoodWeave's success happened in absence of legislation. Pioneering retailers saw the opportunity to create more traceability in their carpet supply chain and to communicate that to customers.  

Now, legislation like the Modern Slavery Act with its transparency clause is requiring more companies to do the same.  And if companies act now – particularly in partnership with the Verités and GoodWeaves of the world, they can make it easier for us, their customers, to make the right choices in the products and services we buy.