Slavery continues to cast a long shadow

A new report has found that major companies including food and hospitality businesses are failing to address the problem, writes Nick Hughes.

Businesses are not properly engaging with the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains.

That’s the blunt conclusion of a new report which uncovers a worrying lack of transparency in the supply chains of a number of major companies including those involved in food, hotels and outsourcing.

The CORE Coalition described the level of complacency it found among major companies as “startling” and called for greater transparency about the problems of modern slavery linked to commodity sourcing and business operations and a reduced reliance on third-party audits and certification schemes.

Modern slavery has moved up the political agenda in recent years – in no small part due to determined campaigning from civil society organisations which have demonstrated how increasing migration and the development of complex global supply chains have created an ideal set of conditions for exploitation and abuse.

Forced labour is the most common element of modern slavery. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 25m people globally are victims of forced labour, 18% of whom are children.

The food chain is particularly at risk. A 2015 study commissioned by the US Department of Labor estimated that more than 2m child labourers worked in cocoa production in the 2013-14 cocoa harvest season in Ivory Coast and Ghana.

CORE, meanwhile, says that many of the 3.5m workers in the booming palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia are victims of serious labour exploitation with workers trafficked into bonded labour, and forced to work and live under extreme conditions with limited legal recourse.

It also notes that much of the workforce recruited into the hotels and catering industry by agencies is made up of migrant workers who are vulnerable to exploitation due to a lack of knowledge about employment rights, limited language skills and little or no access to training and support.

Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, which requires all commercial organisations with an annual turnover of more than £36m operating in the UK to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement setting out their policies, due diligence and risks in relation to slavery and human trafficking.

For its report, which does not allege directly that any of the named companies have slavery or human trafficking in their operations or supply chains, CORE looked at the slavery and human trafficking statements of 50 companies. Half of these source raw materials associated with a heightened risk of modern slavery – including cocoa from west Africa, palm oil from Indonesia and tea from Assam – and the other half operate in sectors that are widely recognised as being at heightened risk, including hotels and accommodation and outsourcing companies.

In the majority of cases it found that companies were failing to join the dots between the risk of slavery and human trafficking, wider labour rights issues such as low wages and long working hours, and economic factors, most notably the price paid for raw materials.

Almost two-thirds of the 45 statements (five companies failed to make any statement at all) made no reference whatsoever to specific risks of slavery and human trafficking and most did not describe the companies’ supply chains nor list source countries for commodities, despite this information often being provided in other company publications.

CORE found that the chocolate companies Hershey, Ferrero, and Lindt & Sprüngli did not provide information in their statements on their cocoa supply chains, in spite of all three companies acknowledging in other publicly available documents that they source from west Africa, where child labour and forced labour are endemic in cocoa production. Of the cocoa companies studied, only Mars specifically acknowledged that severe human rights risks including forced labour may be present in the cocoa supply chain.

All five hotel companies studied – Airbnb, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental and Marriott – provided an overview of the scale of their operations but only Intercontinental included any information on its supply chain and was the only one of the four to provide details on identified risks.

The Modern Slavery Act has been described as a potential game-changer on supply chain transparency, but CORE says this will only be achieved with a considered and concerted effort across the private sector.

The complexity of some supply chains can make it virtually impossible to guarantee that a product has not been produced using slavery, but CORE insists that companies can do more to minimise the risks.

It urges businesses to make engagement on modern slavery a priority and move beyond a reliance on social audits and certification and develop due diligence programs that incorporate engagement with workers and civil society working on the ground.

The message is clear: hiding behind internal policies and standards is no longer enough. As CORE’s director, Marilyn Croser, says pointedly: “Genuine transparency about the problems is needed, not just more PR.”

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