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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