Six years ago to this very day, a group of concerned and angry workers outside a building housing garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, summoned up the courage to go and face their managers about the scarily hazardous conditions they were forced to work under to make the latest fashion items for western brands like Benetton and Primark. They were told in no uncertain terms to get to work or lose a month’s pay. They had no choice but to get to work.
Just one hour later, the eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed on itself, its weak structures no longer able to carry the generators illegally placed on its roof to avoid the frequent power cuts disrupting workflow. They brought down the entire rickety building floor by floor taking thousands of workers with them. The final death toll was 1,134 with a further 2,500 injured.
Modern slavery is not just a developing world problem. It is a problem largely driven and largely sustained by us in the west. And modern slavery is not just a problem created by multinationals that are seeking to maximise their profits, whatever the cost. They do it because we, as customers, want them to keep up with our insatiable appetites. In the retail world, “fast fashion” means demand for more and more clothes that get discarded quicker than ever which in turn means that factory owners have to find ever newer ways of keeping up.
Increasingly in the west it’s businesses that are being held to scrutiny for having driven practices we have in the past simply turned a blind eye to. This is coming through employee activism – people not wanting to work for a company perpetuates these barbaric standards – but also from the rise of the ethical millennial consumer. We’ve yet to see much evidence of shareholder revolts over the matter but businesses tend to respond when competitors gain competitive advantage.
At Thomson Reuters, Monique Villa has initiated a Stop Slavery Awards programme through the company’s foundation which celebrates those businesses that have rigorously interrogated their supply chains and taken action when they have found them to be lacking.
But modern slavery is by no means just a matter of sweat shops in developing countries. There are approximately 13,000 known cases of people living under modern slavery conditions here in the UK that we are aware of which of course means the real number will be significantly higher.
The main routes are from Nigeria (domestic and sex workers), Vietnam (nail shops) and Albania (car washing). I recently became high sheriff of Greater London and this will be a core focus of my year in office as the majority of human trafficking and modern slavery practices are conducted in the capital.
Organisations like the Human Trafficking Foundation are working with the Metropolitan Police and local authorities to help them detect where it is taking place, often in homes and businesses in our neighbourhoods.
The Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2015, making it easier to prosecute traffickers and to not prosecute victims of slavery for crimes they were forced to commit. It also commits big businesses to report how they are tackling the problem in their supply chain. The legislation is currently under review and Baroness Lola Young is among the many parliamentarians seeking to give it more teeth.
So far little has been done to engage SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in this conversation and that needs to change. It’s of course easier said than done but the process of engagement has to start as businesses often need persistent nagging to behave better. A decade ago, I attended a Business in the Community conference on climate change and the role we all had to play. We were all asked to sign a pledge by the Prince of Wales and so we did and then later read what the pledge obliged us to do, the main component of which was to ask ten companies in our supply chain what they would do to reduce their carbon emissions. I wrote to 10 of our suppliers and not one of them replied.
But today, in a world where Greta Thunberg walks into parliament and takes down MPs for failing to act earlier on the environment and where retailers risk losing customers if they have no plan for eliminating single use plastic, we see that it takes a movement of noises over time to drive change.
Public-facing SMEs often see human trafficking and modern slavery as phenomena that affect other businesses and not theirs. It will require more than employee activism to trigger action on this front. It will need consumer activism and the threat of shopping elsewhere.
In the meantime, the next time you’re having your nails done or your car washed, look around you. Watch for bruises and exhaustion in employees, look out for sleeping bags in the corner and if you see anything suspicious around you, there are numbers to call like The Salvation Army’s response unit.
Businesses of all sizes are likely to be complicit in such evil. We need to be better held to account if we’re not confronting it.
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