Eliminating modern slavery and human trafficking in supply chains

Norma Tregurtha, Director, Policy and Outreach at ISEAL considers the role of businesses in tackling forced labour.

Two years have passed since the UK Government passed the Modern Slavery Act (2015), designed to prevent slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking. It is currently estimated that 13,000 men, women and children suffer modern slavery or forced labour in the UK. Globally, an estimated 45.8 million people are in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries.1

The increasing number of voluntary and regulatory frameworks emerging since 2011 with the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights has compelled companies to issue public commitments about human rights in their supply chains. The BSR and GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Report 2016 identifying Corporate Sustainability Priorities revealed Human Rights as the number one priority in 2016. However, the report also showed that while 72 per cent of companies have a Human Rights Policy in place, activities that can help advance the human rights agenda were less common. Critics of the Modern Slavery Act (2015) note that there is no central depository of companies’ public statements and no way of tracking if organisations are implementing the processes outlined in their statements.

Clearly, businesses play an important role in monitoring their supply chains. The charity Unseen claims that governments and police forces cannot beat modern slavery without business support. Tools such as the BSI Group’s Trafficking and Supply Chain Slavery Patterns Index have been introduced to help businesses identify and respond to human trafficking and slavery in their supply chains. Companies’ progress in this regard is measured by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, launched in March 2017, which assesses 98 of the largest publicly traded companies in the world on 100 human rights indicators.

This regulatory and reputational pressure has sparked commitment to action but what about credible implementation? How can sustainability standards help to bridge the implementation gap?

Firstly, companies can provide details of how they will implement their human rights policy by including a specific commitment to have all or part of their supply chain certified or choosing not to source from a supplier that is not certified.

Secondly, standards can help companies around supply chain risk and mapping. Credible standards have strong verification mechanisms in place to help assess compliance with the standard. The results of these certification audits can be used to help companies monitor their risk. The absence of certification can also be used to identify potential risks. For example, if suppliers are not certified and audited by a third party, companies may choose to focus on these suppliers for further evaluation because they pose a greater risk of not complying with the commitment.

Thirdly, credible standards organisations undertake capacity building and advocacy activities that help reduce the risks of modern slavery, for example those standards liaising in the Global Living Wage Coalition.

Finally, standards help with implementation by having sight of the whole supply chain. By providing a sector wide solution that extends beyond individual companies, they offer a comprehensive package of services such as training and capacity building and collate data on the risks of modern slavery which can be used to inform action.

There are of course many challenges to implementing a human rights policy and managing risks within the supply chain. Standards on their own do not offer a complete solution. To meet the challenges, standards are working to improve auditing processes, to better detect human rights abuses, strengthen complaint mechanisms and link with other risk management tools to create accurate risk assessments.

For businesses with the goal of identifying and eradicating human rights abuses from their supply chains, this is definitely a case where action through implementation speaks louder than words.

BSI Group, January 2017