The Hidden Sustainability Issue: Modern Slavery and the Supply Chain

Case Study and Resources

What comes to mind when you think about slaves? Maybe the slaves of the ancient Egyptian, Roman or Greek civilisations who built the pyramids or worked in the households of nobility?

Unfortunately, slavery is still a reality today. “Modern slavery” is a sustainability term coined to describe and measure the situation of people who work in inhumane conditions and are exploited for commercial gains.

As a consumer you´re paying attention to your own purchasing habits, and as a businessperson, you´re doing the right thing by taking care of your employees – but are your business partners doing the same? How about the suppliers or subcontractors of your business partners?

Amongst the organisations committed to ending modern-times exploitation are Anti-Slavery International (Anti-Slavery International – Let’s End Modern Slavery Together ) and Hope for Justice (Hope for Justice | End Slavery. Change Lives.). The UN Global Compact is also tackling with how legislators and businesses deal with modern slavery:

“A growing number of countries around the world have introduced new legislation which makes businesses legally accountable for crimes related to modern slavery, and requires them to be publicly transparent about the steps they are taking to prevent and address modern slavery.”

The UN Global Compact emphasises the importance of businesses acting towards ensuring decent work conditions and eliminating modern slavery and child labour – aligned with SDG # 8 “Decent work and economic growth”.

“Goal 8 is ambitious. No country, business or other organization can achieve this goal alone, and urgent action is needed. But there are no quick fixes. Coordination and coherent, sustainable solutions are vital.”

One of the challenges: modern slavery is often hidden in the supply chain. Consumer products like food, clothing, or electronic appliances have been in the spotlight for a long time. Modern slavery is an unwanted, but often ignored topic in the business-to-business environment. Sustainability organisations and reporting standards are therefore tackling the issue and asking not only for policies, but for full transparency in showing companies walk the talk – across their whole value chain – including suppliers beyond the first tier.

A Case Study: Considerations for onboarding and checking compliance of subcontractors

I had an impassioned discussion on the topic of modern slavery with a client – a construction company – in a recent sustainability workshop. The client’s partners on construction sites must undergo a compliance check process to provide transparency on their equal opportunities, modern slavery, and anti-bribery practices. During numerous onboardings, my client realized that sub-contractors who don´t have the manpower or knowledge to navigate thorough compliance processes are often the ones at risk of non-compliance.

  • Compliance check: even if sub-contractors tick all the boxes, how can you make sure they don´t exploit their workforce? One solution discussed was to conduct construction site audits – a strain on resources. Realistically, the firm could conduct a few select site audits to check how sub-contractors operate and how their employees are treated. Moreover, desktop research can reveal which sub-contractors are at risk – by flagging specific indicators like employing a lot of migrant workforces.
  • Staff awareness: another solution suggested was to educate and encourage site staff to be vigilant and report any suspicious situations: “If you see something, say something”. This involves both awareness campaigns to educate the staff and a communication path for onsite staff to report to the back office.
  • Statement of intent: Finally, the firm needs to have a strong stance about discouraging modern slavery and not doing business with partners who are engaged in any form of forced labour. Being vigilant about modern slavery, and talking about it openly, is important, as is reporting on one’s own company policy and processes. More and more information on avoiding modern slavery is being required by different stakeholders – including customers. A public statement of intent will send a powerful signal to other construction market players – competitors or sub-contractors – and help raise awareness about modern slavery.

Addressing the critical topic of modern slavery in the supply chain impacts a company´s sustainability strategy – and can heavily influence its reputation and customer trust.

Even in the face of limited transparency in the supply chain, or the pressure to control costs, doing the right thing will keep companies on the safe side legally and morally – and will ultimately help businesses create a better world with actions that are within their power.

Resources & Links
Hope for Justice | End Slavery. Change Lives.
Anti-Slavery International – Let’s End Modern Slavery Together (antislavery.org)
UN Global Compact Business: It’s Time to Act | UN Global Compact

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