The violence of slavery: how businesses can respond to forced and child labour in their supply chains

Remarks to conflict minerals supply chain compliance and transparency conference, Berlin, 30 Nov 2016

Investigations into conflict minerals, such as diamonds and oil, over the past twenty years have shown how international markets and northern hemisphere business executives have wittingly and unwittingly contributed to the financing of war affecting poor people in the global South.

There has been some notable progress of course. But recent investigations, such as into cobalt mining in central Africa, shows that much still needs to be done.

Conflict, particularly if it affects places which supply scarce commodities, poses a considerable challenge for businesses wishing to operate ethically. Many of the most basic protections that we take for granted are absent and rule of law, if it ever existed, can become a distant memory. Over 2,000 years ago Cicero noted that, “In times of war, the laws are silent,” because of the damage that war does to the institutions of state, and because war breaks the bonds of human restraint, as Shakespeare recognised, letting slip the dogs.

Consequently conflict creates the conditions in which exploitation and enslavement can be perpetrated to extract minerals for international markets that finance the conflict that in turn perpetuates the conditions in which exploitation and enslavement can continue. It is a vicious circle that I came to loathe during the long and bloody war in Angola, where I worked for five years, trying to ensure basic provision of water and sanitation in the midst of the devastation created by the oil and diamond financed war machines of the antagonists.

Slavery has long been part of war. Caesar enriched himself by the trafficking of millions of prisoners captured in his conquest of Gaul. Islamic State and Boko Haram, drawing on the jurisprudence of Saudi Arabia, seem to have a similar attitude towards those they conquer and subjugate. But the risks of trafficking and enslavement do not end at the edges of the theatres of war. Those who successfully flee the killing fields can find themselves subject to renewed risks if the seeking of refuge leaves them impoverished and without permission to seek decent work legitimately.

I have spoken to humanitarian workers who have found in the refugee camps of the Middle East increased trafficking of children for forced marriage and other forms of sexual exploitation, and of trafficking for forced child labour in agriculture and other forms of production. We may feel shocked when we understand how parents are involved in handing their children over for exploitation, but for many the trafficking of their children into slavery now may seem like a lesser evil than allowing them to starve. Those refugees who have been fortunate enough to make it into Europe may find their troubles are not ended if they also do not have permission to seek work legitimately. They also may find themselves at increased risk of exploitation and enslavement if they seek work in the informal or grey economy.

Put another way, Europe’s political response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has been a direct contributor not only to the carnage at sea, but to increased risks of trafficking on land. For businesses this means that supply chains that had been hitherto thought safe from human rights violations are now considerably less so.

Considering all of this I think it is perhaps more useful at this point in time to take a much broader perspective of the risks that conflict poses to supply chains more generally, rather than those associated only with scarce minerals or other commodities. Because one of the commodities that war and conflict produce in such abundance is forced labour, and that can get into all sorts of places. And even where conflicts are less overt or where societies are ostensibly at peace, human trafficking cannot occur without violence.

For example the enslavement of Dalits and Adavasi across south Asia is one manifestation of the violence that emerges from the discrimination that prevails against them across that sub-continent due to the failure to establish effective rule of law that protects the rights of all citizens equally. A consequence of that are endemic levels of slavery in agriculture, quarrying, including mica, brick kilns, and many other manufacturing sectors including garments.

Consider also, for a moment, North Korea. North Korean exports in 2013 were estimated as being in the region of USD 7 billion. In 2015 the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea estimated that the trafficking by the state of its own citizens for forced labour in other countries, including the building sites of Qatar and farms and factories in Poland and Malta, was worth in excess of USD 2 billion. In other words the repressive apparatus of the North Korean dictatorship and the threat to international peace that its nuclear weapons programme poses is sustained insignificant part by international complicity in the trafficking of North Korean citizens.

Some of this may seem daunting, and business leaders may feel powerless in the face of the social and political systems that underpin contemporary forms of slavery and child labour. It one be foolish for anyone to expect any business to be able to solve all such problems, even only in their own supply chains. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognise this, stating that it is the responsibility of businesses to respect the human rights of workers, and it is the responsibility of governments to protect those rights. And within this framework I believe that businesses can do more.

The first thing that businesses can and should do is to commit to use whatever power is at their disposal to end the problems that they can end. This will not be everything, but by ensuring transparency in supply chains businesses will not only be able to identify what are the risks of human rights abuses that they face in these supply chains, but understand why these risks exist. In Malaysia, for example, the forced labour of migrants is a particular problem in part because of the tied visa regulations that give employers considerable powers over workers. Ensuring that workers have all the necessary paperwork from day one of their employment to ensure they can leave that employment of their own volition if they so wish would reduce the risks of exploitation. Similarly businesses should refuse to work with labour providers who charge workers fees, often of such exorbitance that they effectively render the workers in bondage.

Second businesses must recognise that the challenges of human rights in supply chains are pre-competitive. No business should be seeking a competitive advantage based on lowering their labour costs to close to zero by effectively enslaving workers. I say no business should do this but of course many do. But likewise no business should be seeking commercial advantage based on simply ensuring that the workers in their supply chain are treated as human beings. That should be the common starting point for all. But in the absence of this there is considerable risk that those who see a commercial advantage in an ethical reputation may be tempted to cover up information about abuses in the supply chains rather than confront and rectify the abuses.

Third businesses should be prepared to recognise when a problem is beyond their power and speak publicly about that. The slavery that exists within the Thai and Irish fishing fleets is in part due to poor regulation and inspection of these sectors. Those are governmental responsibilities. Similarly the child labour that is so endemic in the West African agricultural sector is in part due to the fact that there are too few schools and often these schools are of a poor quality. Again this is a matter that governments should rectify.

Which brings me to my fourth point. Businesses must not be coy about their political voice. Politicians tend to pay more attention to business leaders than to those of non-governmental organisation such as myself. And I get the impression that business leaders are not shy about speaking on a range of what might be called traditional business- political matters, such as tax or trade policy.

But with the globalisation of the international political economy it is important to recognise that human rights and development policy can also have commercial and legal implications for businesses, The US Trade Enforcement and Facilitation Act empowers the US Customs Service to exclude from US markets goods tainted with forced or child labour. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act requires businesses to state what they are doing to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. As I said businesses should commit to doing what is in their power to end slavery in their supply chains, and sometimes the most important power that they should exercise is that of demanding appropriate action from governments.

In the final analysis slavery is a human institution. It can be changed by human action. The great strides that we have seen in against slavery in the course of human history have occurred when businesses have joined with governments, trades unions and civil society to reject this form of violence against vulnerable human beings. You know this yourselves. When we act together, we can overcome.

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Conclave, by Robert Harris

The pope is dead. It falls to Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, to oversee the Conclave to elect the new pope.

The one hundred and eighteen men who gather to elect a new pope are a diverse mix: conservatives and liberals from every corner of the world, some desperate for the prize, some dreading the prospect.

I started reading this book the day after Donald Trump was elected, on a minority of the votes as it transpired, as President of the United States. I was desperate for a story to transport me from the bleak reality.

It can be a bit hit and miss on the cheeriness front with Harris – things turned out okay for Dreyfus in An Officer and a Spy, Cicero not so much. But Harris always puts together a good political thriller, and this is no exception with the growing tension as the voting in the Sistine chapel proceeds.

At the heart of the story is Lomeli, a man of faith and doubt, trying his best to behave honourably in the face of the dark secrets and challenges that emerge. I don’t know what Harris’ own religious views are but he provides a deeply sympathetic and empathetic account of the beliefs and thinking of the high cleric and committed Catholic at the heart of the story.

As a remarkable coincidence after I finished this book early one morning I switched on the television to see a 2011 interview with Robert Harris talking about Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. In the interview Harris concluded that there has never been anyone who can quite fill the gap left by Greene, a writer of gripping thrillers which wrestled with serious moral concerns and complex philosophical issues. I’m not so sure that since he gave that interview in 2011, Harris himself hasn’t made a creditable claim on Greene’s mantle.

Keeping the flame: the anti-slavery agenda in a bleak contemporary world

Speech to Annual General Meeting of Anti-Slavery International, 12 Nov 2016 

A few weeks ago I visited Côte d’Ivoire with the confectionary company Mondelez. We have been working with Mondelez for a number of years now, since they bought Cadbury’s and with that Cadbury’s nascent work on trying to tackle the issues of child labour and child slavery in their supply chains.

Both these sets of abuses are rife in agriculture in the global South, often concealed behind the operations of agricultural traders or wholesalers. The reality, however, was revealed at the start of the century with a documentary, Chocolate’s Secret Slaves. This caused a particular shock to both consumers and companies alike and drew attention to the issue, including from the US congress. This in turn forced a rethink by most of the chocolate retailers as to how they were going to manage their supply chains to sustain production and to eliminate the abuses within it.

The response by Mondelez bears Anti-Slavery’s distinct stamp: Anti-Slavery’s work with Mondelez led to their adoption and publication of a new child labour policy that puts transparency and pro-active efforts to identify risks and instances of abuse, at its heart. The effectiveness of this was demonstrated this year by the publication of two independent reports, which we were directly involved in commissioning, on child labour in Mondelez supply chains in Cote d’Ivorie and Ghana. This was the first time to our knowledge that a large company had the courage to publish a report that they commissioned on slavery in supply chains. The recommendations of these reports are now being translated into actions by the coalition of NGOs and businesses involved in the Mondelez “Cocoa Life” programme. A third investigation on Indonesia is underway.

I was able to see the direct impact of this work myself when I visited Ivorian communities where child labour has been reduced, girls’ education boosted, and women’s empowerment helped to establish new community governance structures to ensure that progress is sustained.

I wanted to start with a positive story given the bleakness of the past year. I had some sense we were in for a bad year when David Bowie died on my birthday in January. But just how bad I really could not imagine.

We meet in the aftermath of an election in the US that has brought to power a man who has openly espoused racism and boasted of sexually assaulting women. Closer to home Brexit represents a repudiation of the European ideals of working together bound by common commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Brexit poses a more immediate set of challenges to Anti-Slavery. We were the first and only anti-slavery organisation to highlight, before the referendum, the serious risks that Brexit posed to law enforcement cooperation across Europe in anti-slavery operations, and of reductions of human rights protections to non-UK nationals in Britain that can increase their vulnerability to slavery. Further as Brexit withdraws the UK from the Council of Ministers this restricts radically the UK’s ability to influence Europe wide law and policy against slavery.

But the threats are more profound than that. Brexit certainly represents the UK turning its back on Europe. But it also represents a repudiation by the UK of the ideals of rule of law: certainly of the international variety as Brexit represents a desire to be unbound from the international treaties that have drawn Europe together so successfully for so long. But, with the recent attacks on High Court judges for having the temerity of doing their jobs by ruling that parliament is paramount in UK law, we see a repudiation by powerful and vocal sections of the UK population of the ideal of rule of law itself.

Advancing rule of law, particularly obtaining adequate human rights protections in national and international law, is an essential front in the struggle against slavery. The absence of such protections leads to the sort of slavery abuses we see from the brick kilns of northern India to the international trafficking of vulnerable workers to the building sites of Qatar and the servants’ quarters of London.

An immediate threat to the work of Anti-Slavery International is the UK government’s indication that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Amongst other human rights issues, over the past decade the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly held accountable European Governments on their failure to protect vulnerable workers from slavery.

This year the threat of referral to the Court forced the British Government to halt the deportation of a client of Anti-Slavery who had come to us with a credible account and substantial documentary evidence of forced labour in the UK, which the British police had refused to investigate when he approached them in two different UK cities.

This year we have also made a submission to the Court on a case from Greece where a group of Bangladeshi agricultural workers were enslaved with the collusion of the Greek police, a matter that the Greek Government has failed to resolve in spite of the entreaties of the Greek Ombudsman.

Over the past decade, several key judgments highlighted the obligations of the state in relation to slavery – in particular that it is the authorities duty to act on indications of trafficking. Without the Greek government being bound by the European Court of Human Rights there would be no legal recourse for their abject failure to protect the most basic rights of these enslaved migrant workers. Let us hope that Greece is not inspired by the UK’s contempt for the Court to also seek to remove itself from the jurisdiction of the Court.

In the bleakness of the current historical moment I recall how Abraham Lincoln would comfort himself in the midst of another crisis by reflecting on the sentence, “And this too shall pass away.”

There will be brighter days ahead. But we will not be a passive actor awaiting those days. We represent the oldest and deepest tradition of European human rights – remember the Committee for the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was formed by a bunch of awkward Quakers in London in 1787, two years before the French Revolution.

So we will be working for better days. Anti-Slavery will place itself at the forefront of the struggle to protect the Human Rights Act. We will continue to strive with our friends and colleagues in the anti-slavery movements of the global South, for stronger national and international action against slavery and for practical measures to empower those vulnerable to slavery, forced and child labour, in both East and West Africa, in South Asia, in Europe and in the Americas.

That is another reason why I began these remarks with a brief discussion of our work with Mondelez. It represents the real progress for tens of thousands of people that can arise from our sustained work, without artificially imposed timetables, with people of good will from non-traditional partners as well as with the more traditional variety that we work with. That is also part of the Anti-Slavery tradition, stretching back to Thomas Clarkson’s original organising and campaigning against slavery with all sections of society from business leaders to trade union organisers.

The UK’s modern slavery act, which Anti-Slavery played a decisive role in making more fit for purpose than the government’s underwhelming original draft of the Bill, contains a Transparency in Supply Chains clause. This has led to an increased attention by business to the risks of slavery in their supply chains and increased requests from businesses for Anti-Slavery to work with them to help mitigate the risks and hence open greater opportunities for decent work to those currently enslaved.

As we grasp these opportunities we fulfil, I believe, the imperative identified by Roger Casement in 1894, that “… we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form”. And, in fulfilling that commission, we will keep the flame of human rights alive, and continue to change the world for the better.