Human rights protection has traditionally been considered the responsibility of governments. However, the combination of globalisation and immense corporate growth has exponentially increased the potential for businesses to inflict great damage on both peoples and environments. Indeed, Global Justice Now, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) has shown that in the list of the world’s top 100 economic entities, 31 are nation states and 69 are corporations.[1] This figure demonstrates the massive power of big business in the world and a shift in the paradigm of who maintains and enforces traditional rights protections is clearly warranted. In recent years, the exposure of corporate human rights violations has led to enhanced public awareness of this issue, and the coining of the term: “Modern Slavery”. But what is Modern Slavery?

 

Contexualising Modern Slavery

 

The United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines trafficking in persons as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through the use of threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.’[2]

 

The International Labour Organisation estimates that of the 21 million people in situations of forced labour and slavery, 11.7 million are located in the Asia Pacific region, 3.7 million are located in Africa and 1.8 million are located in South America.[3]  Further, it is estimated that slavery in these global supply chains generates about $US150 billion in revenue annually, with $US51 billion in profits generated from forced labour in this region.[4]

 

Due to cheaper production costs, a great deal of labour in these countries is dedicated toward producing consumer goods sold in Western Nations.  For example, as documented by the NGO STOP THE TRAFFIK AU, the supply of cocoa to Western confectionary companies has repeatedly been found to be fuelled by child labour in West Africa. The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 further exposed the Western world to the stark reality for textile workers in developing nations. This incident, involving the collapse of a complex in Bangladesh holding five garment factories, resulted in the death of 1,135 workers.[5] The tragedy brought to light how these workers – overwhelmingly women - are subject to hazardous conditions in the interests of corporate cost-cutting, so as to feed the demand for fast fashion in the West.  Clearly, the link between the way in which companies conduct their operations and human rights cannot be denied.

 

The Rana Plaza disaster is also one of the many examples of how Modern Slavery overwhelmingly harms women. In Bangladesh, 85% of garment workers are women[6] and it is estimated that in general, women and girls make up around 70% of all people in Modern Slavery.[7] In short, the phenomenon of Modern Slavery is both a human rights and a feminist issue.

 

What needs to be done?

 

Given that the purpose of corporations is to pursue profits in the interests of shareholders, as it stands there is little incentive for businesses to ensure that their supply chains are free from Modern Slavery. Without adequate regulation in this space, there is nothing to ensure consistency in the way in which corporations address human rights in their operations, and businesses are not on a level playing field. This means that companies that cut corners in their supply chains and generate profits as a result of Modern Slavery are at a competitive edge over those that invest in the health, safety, and reasonable remuneration of their workers. 

 

Certainly, whilst it is on trend for companies to embrace “corporate social responsibility”, it is difficult to determine whether such intentions are genuine. This is even the case when companies ascribe to schemes such as the United Nations Global Compact and other voluntary sustainability guidelines. Whilst these measures are still worthwhile, they lack enforcement provisions and thereby do not prevent a corporation from acting ethically in one sense in the interest of public relations, whilst turning a blind eye to human rights violations in other aspects of its operations. And as a result, vulnerable people – particularly women with few other economic opportunities – are exploited.

 

All of the above means that without transparency, consumers wishing to purchase ethically are often left to accept the information provided by businesses at face value, unless the business has subjected itself to legitimate third-party auditing. Recognising these difficulties, it is clear that government intervention is needed for a consistent approach across the board. This conclusion is furthered by the fact that, despite both an increase in consumer demand for ethically produced products and corporate participation in voluntary corporate social responsibility schemes, statistics from the 2016 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons show that the number of victims of forced labour has increased over the past 10 years. This figure demonstrates to us that current initiatives to combat Modern Slavery have not been effective in dealing with the problem.

 

Whilst some countries have taken action to combat the problem of Modern Slavery in corporate supply chains by introducing laws, overall, legal regulation in this sphere is fractured by inconsistency and a lack of concrete accountability measures. For example, in the United Kingdom, the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides that a commercial organisation producing goods and services of over £36 million must comply with certain disclosure requirements.  Companies falling within the ambit of the legislation are required to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.  The Act is not proscriptive, and companies are not required to take any particular measures. There are also no provisions in the Act providing for directorial responsibility and liability in relation to these reporting obligations.  This means that those charged with making executive decisions within a corporation are not subject to any individual human rights accountability. Unsurprisingly, the Act has accordingly been criticised by a number of human rights bodies on the grounds that it lacks the ability to be truly effective.

 

Following a parliamentary inquiry, Australia is in the process of introducing a Modern Slavery Act akin to the one in the United Kingdom.  Submissions to the inquiry highlighted such issues with the UK Act, including its insufficient focus on protection of the human rights of victims. In the United States and Europe, some legislative action has also been taken in this regard, although progress is slow and economic interests of nations and corporations undoubtedly stands in the way of introducing strong enforcement provisions. In Africa, some lawmakers have shown a willingness to introduce laws to combat modern slavery,[8] although tangible progress in this regard remains to be seen.

 

What next?

 

Whilst regulating business in a globalised world of mega corporations and transnational supply chains is complex and difficult, there is clearly more that can be done at present in terms of protecting human rights. From a consumer perspective, the impact of our voices should not be discounted. Certainly, it is such public demand that has driven the advent of measures such as the UK Modern Slavery Act. Writing to governments and outlining the need for greater transparency is a powerful way of demonstrating public desire for corporate accountability. NGOs such as STOP THE TRAFFIK AU frequently garner public support for petitions in this regard.

 

Despite that we are limited by the information made available to us, it is nonetheless valuable to continue to demonstrate the demand for ethically sourced products to the corporations we buy from.  This can be done by writing to companies, requesting third-party verification as to their supply chains and following auditing initiatives such as those carried out by Oxfam International and Baptist World Aid.

 

In the meantime, we can only hope that with heightened pressure, governments and businesses will move to ensure that not only do we never see a repeat of Rana Plaza again, but that labourers in developing nations are afforded fair pay, employment rights and safety in the workplace.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/world-s- top-100- economies-31- countries-69-

Corporations

[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ProtocolTraffickingInPersons.aspx

[3] http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/policy-areas/statistics/lang--en/index.htm

[4] http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/policy-areas/statistics/lang--en/index.htm

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/18/rana-plaza-collapse-murder-charges-garment-factory

[6] https://www.fashionrevolution.org/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-in-the-garment-industry/

[7] http://www.alliance87.org/2017ge/modernslavery#!section=1

[8] http://allafrica.com/stories/201707250016.html

 

 

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