Let’s start with the good news. Since my last trip to the Davos mountains, in the past year there has been substantial increase in awareness around one of the world’s most horrible crimes: slavery. More investigative reports have been published, more money has been committed to the fight against human trafficking, world leaders such as Pope Francis have publicly taken a strong stand, and heroes such as Kailash Satyarthi have received the Nobel Peace Prize. The issue is certainly in the public domain.
The bad news is that slavery is still very much a silent crime, and a flourishing business worth US$150 billion a year, more than the GDP of most African countries, and three times Apple’s earnings.
The scale of the problem is huge. According to Walk Free, there are 35 million people enslaved around the world, the highest number in history, and roughly equivalent to the population of Australia and Greece combined.
Slavery takes different forms, from forced prostitution and labour to debt bondage. The common denominator is poverty. Victims are needy and vulnerable; they don’t know their rights. In some countries, people are still born into slavery.
Clearly something needs to be done. But where to start?
In the past few years, a few industries have come under the spotlight in relation to slave labour. In many cases, the emerging pattern points to massive outsourcing and little accountability. Production chains have become incredibly long and complex, making it very challenging – to say the least – for businesses to have complete oversight.
Over the past decade, along with cheap products we have also been sold a myth: that ‘buying cheap’ has become a ‘democratic right’ of our times. The truth is that there is nothing democratic about the principle of buying at unrealistically low prices. The equation is simple: if we want more, workers must produce faster. And if we want goods to cost less, then production – including salaries – must cost less. Look at it this way: do we, women, really need 10,000 fashion looks a year?
Supply chains are at risk of becoming the gates from which many modern-day slaves get trapped. This is not just morally wrong; it’s also extremely dangerous for the business. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of slave labour, and brand damage can have long and costly consequences.
That’s why I am convinced that big corporations are the key players in the fight against slavery. Today, if you compare state GDP to net profits, global corporations are bigger and more powerful than many nation states. They certainly have the ability to implement changes in their production chains very quickly if needed.
My role is not to point fingers but rather to help find ethical alternatives and facilitate connections that can eradicate slave labour. 35 million is indeed a big number, but not one that global corporations cannot tackle.
Some CEOs have already taken bold steps. A leading British cosmetic company has recently dropped mica from all of its products after finding that sourcing the mineral in India – where 60% of the world’s mica is produced – often involves child labour and child slavery.
Other companies are taking different approaches. Some, operating in the food industry, are re-assessing their supply chains, and where issues are detected, are working with local communities – such as in Côte d’Ivoire – to make sure children stay in school, instead of being exploited in cocoa plantations. The same is beginning to happen in the Assam region of India, where a lot of the world’s tea comes from.
The World Economic Forum is a great opportunity for us to discuss meaningful ways to move forward. In the 21st century, companies cannot be the source of slave labour. All of us, responsible customers, should ask questions about the goods we buy. And those from the media world should investigate a lot more to shed light on the abuse.
For too long the debate has been merely around “how to obtain the cheapest and the fastest”. It is now the time also to consider the human impact of production. It’s a tough task, but we need to act. Let’s confine slavery to the history books. That is where it should belong.
This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Monique Villa is a journalist, a business leader, and a passionate advocate for women’s empowerment. She was appointed CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2008.
Image: A girl from the African Hebrew Israelite community, popularly known as “the Black Hebrews”, hides behind an adult during a celebration for the holiday of Shavuot in the southern town of Dimona June 15, 2014. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.