Civil Society

Is this a turning point in the fight against slavery?

A survivor of slavery who wished to remain anonymous poses for a picture in New Delhi, India March 7, 2018. Picture taken March 7, 2018

Corporates - and consumers - are focusing increasingly on eradicating forced labour, and it's paying off Image: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Monique Villa
CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

When Apple won the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Stop Slavery Award in November, the business world took notice.

Arguably the most famous brand in the world, Apple had not only publicly taken steps to try to eradicate forced labour from its operations, it had walked away with the top prize. Despite its vast and complex networks of supply chains, the high-profile jury of experts judged that Apple was “leading the way in all categories” in its attempts to stamp out modern slavery.

What a contrast to the headlines in 2010, when journalists broke the Foxconn scandal, which highlighted multiple suicides amongst employees at a Chinese contract electronic manufacturing plant which produced, among other things, Apple products. Some reports linked the spate of suicides to working conditions at the plant.

Apple found itself dominating the headlines again in November when Angela Ahrendts, its head of retail, chose the awards ceremony at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual human rights forum Trust Conference to announce that the company would be employing survivors of human trafficking in its stores.

This would never have happened a few years ago.

We are witnessing a crucial shift in the global fight against slavery. Big businesses in the US, Europe and Australia are taking responsibility as never before for their role in ridding the world of this most appalling of crimes. And they are doing it in the full glare of the media and amidst growing awareness among consumers.

Modern slavery has long been a hidden crime, outlawed in every country but endemic throughout the world. The $150bn trade in human trafficking flourishes where people are most vulnerable and thrives alongside humanitarian catastrophes; you have only to look at how refugee crises have made displaced and desperate people easy targets for traffickers, or how conflict has reduced populations to poverty, when basic human rights are sacrificed for the fight to stay alive.

Of the estimated 40.3 million people currently enslaved, 70% are trapped in forced labour, exploited and abused. Men, women and children are locked in debt bondage, stripped of dignity and deprived of freedom. They are humanity reduced to commodity, working unpaid in factories, farms and fields, or risking their lives daily in dilapidated mines, on fishing boats, or opening cocoa beans. They are the silent victims of a toxic economy driven by a global thirst for ever cheaper goods and services - often impossible to trace, always impossible to quantify.

But slowly, the world’s secret shame is becoming more visible. Increased media scrutiny has led to growing consumer awareness, and, critically, corporates are having to address it.

Business has a big role to play in this increasingly interconnected world if we want to eradicate slavery. If we can narrow the risk of forced labour in these types of multilayered and multinational supply chains, then we deny traffickers their means of exploitation. But this demands the cooperation and courage of the largest businesses, many of which have lacked either the incentive or the expertise to delve too deeply into their supply chains.


However, the tide is turning. CEOs of global corporations are beginning to steer a new course towards supply chain transparency and management. One of the best examples of this exemplary leadership is Unilever, whose former CEO Paul Polman was responsible for the company winning the other of this year’s Stop Slavery Awards. Despite having one of the highest-risk supply chains in the world, judges praised Unilever’s participation in the Consumer Goods Forum, its leadership efforts to facilitate industry collaboration and its commitment to continuous improvement. They also said Unilever had “a lot more work to do”.

Tackling the root causes of slavery, dismantling criminal trafficking networks, protecting those most vulnerable and rehabilitating victims is vital. But this is complex work in often uncharted territory.

Adidas, who won last year’s Stop Slavery Award, employs 1.3 million workers. Nevertheless, it has established strict responsible sourcing guidelines, tracing risks of forced labour right down to the raw materials used in its supply chains. This is a considerable effort. Walmart, the world’s largest private employer with 2.3 million employees, is working with other retailers, suppliers, processors and NGOs to identify risks of forced labour, and to train its seafood suppliers in Thailand – a country notoriously plagued by slavery in the fishing industry - on supply chain visibility and management systems. It is also using technology to improve workers’ rights – introducing hotlines and even a smartphone app that allows Burmese migrants working as fishers to review their employers. This type of corporate due diligence – and cross-sector collaboration - is to be applauded.

While some of the world’s biggest companies are changing the landscape of the fight against slavery at an unprecedented scale, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 has kickstarted stronger legislation in a number of other countries. Most recently, Australia’s Modern Slavery Act - passed in November 2018 - requires companies with a turnover of more than $AUD100 million to publicly file an annual modern slavery report which must be signed off at board level and published within six months of the company’s annual reports. Some 3,000 businesses will have to comply.

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There is currently a push for European-wide legislation, too. In September 2017, eight national parliaments within the EU called for standardized legislation to encourage businesses to address human rights issues. Imagine the global impact were this were to be rubber-stamped by such a large trading bloc.

The real change, though, will come when businesses start to actively market themselves as ‘slave-free’ to the next generation of conscious consumers.

Wishful thinking? Maybe not. Take a look at Meghan Markel’s jean brand of choice - she wore these jeans six times in her tour of Australia and New Zealand. Outland Denim’s CEO James Bartle, whose business is now firmly in the global spotlight, markets his clothes as ‘slave-free’ and employs survivors of slavery and trafficking in Cambodia to produce the jeans.

Meanwhile Dutch chocolate maker Tony's Chocolonely stamps its products with the slogan “100 percent slave-free”. The firm deals directly with local farmers rather than international traders and traces its supply chain fully, from the beans to the finished products. Launched with a mission to raise awareness of slavery and child labour in the cocoa industry, the company is now the market-leading brand in the Netherlands.

With annual revenues of €45 million, the firm does not pay for advertising: slavery-free is its selling point.

These two brands lead the way in industries that remain highly contaminated by slavery. Could this be the start of a revolution in the consumer approach?

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