By Dan Viederman
Solving supply chain Code of Conduct violations will take multi-faceted interventions. I was privileged to facilitate a panel on “Slavery in the Supply Chain” at the annual Trust Women Conference organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that presented some solutions, and challenges, to an audience of smart and committed people from business, government, media, advocacy and law.
Conferences like this demonstrate that there are in many cases existing, effective solutions to pressing problems like forced labor in supply chains. In private conversations, I’ve been emphasizing lately the opportunity and urgency for companies to adopt these existing solutions now rather than await the invention of something new. Much benefit—to vulnerable workers, their employers, brands and other supply chain ‘owners’—can be achieved almost immediately if companies were to take steps like HP has (outlined in this newsletter elsewhere), and as we’ve described Apple doing in the past.
Our panel addressed some of the reasons why existing interventions haven’t been adopted more quickly, and proposed some steps forward.
It is clear that numerous companies have solid understanding of the risks that they face in their supply chains, but don’t act on it because of internal silos. Corporate responsibility staff may know where rights violations exist, but lack the weight to influence sourcing decisions quickly and effectively. Verité is part of a collaboration announced at the Conference with Thompson Reuters to gather data from different perspectives and make it actionable. Thompson Reuters has literally millions of data points about businesses around the world, including some of the labor providers that exploit worker vulnerability and provide service to suppliers of multinationals. This work may particularly help illuminate the link between trafficking and corruption.
Another complication for companies dealing with forced labor is that they are sometimes unwittingly involved with illegal actors. Severe exploitation like forced labor flows across and around the boundaries between legal and illegal work. Boundaries between sex and labor trafficking are not as clear on the ground as corporate policies assume they are. Sister Imelda Poole of Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation (RENATE) described her work with vulnerable populations in Europe. She confirmed that recruitment into sex trafficking and into legal work—in construction and agriculture, as well as domestic service—often emerge from the same communities and the same recruiters. Her examples emphasized a vital point—that any company seeking to evaluate its own exposure to forced labor must assess the labor recruiters who provide it with workers.
Lastly, our sector faces the continuing problem of reliable data. Jayshree Satpute, a human rights lawyer with Nazdeek, works with tea pickers in Assam. She described how difficult it is for her, her organization and the pickers themselves to share information with certification bodies involved with the tea sector. These certifiers have not reached out to involve her organization or her community members in the evaluation of working conditions on tea estates, Jayshree says. Community and worker participation will, as we know well after two decades of delivering worker-focused audits, improve the quality of information available to tea buyers, and facilitate improvement in working conditions.