Those of you that have been keeping up with our Modern Slavery Bill campaign will know that we’re adamant that the bill is short by just five words. The five words in question are “(including in its supply chains)” and in this blog, we’re going to explain why this amendment is so incredibly important.
What do we mean by “supply chains”?
Global companies are formed from complex webs of production spread all across the world. Cotton that is picked in China might be transported to India to be dyed and then sewn together in Bangladesh. It’s done this way because it’s the quickest and cheapest way for multinational corporations to get their goods produced and on the shelves in time for the next season. The problem is that with so many links in the chain, many companies have little to no real oversight of their suppliers in terms of their ethical and environmental impact on the communities that are producing.
This means that farms and producing communities in developing nations are hotbeds for exploitation and human trafficking. The demands of international business mean that without the legal frameworks and economic strength to back them up, any calls for higher wages and better working conditions are extremely difficult to act upon. It also means that trafficked labour is almost impossible to trace, as the impoverished communities in which the factories and farms are based are powerless to speak out. Trapped in a catch-22 between excruciating labour for little pay or the starvation of an entire family, these communities find themselves exceptionally susceptible to the deception, coercion and forceful behaviours of traffickers who seek to exploit their vulnerabilities further.
Until the demand for cheap, no-questions-asked labour is curbed, change will be an uphill struggle. This is why it is so critical to use this opportunity to ensure that corporations operating in the UK take responsibility for all the workers they directly or indirectly employ. We need companies to take the lead because they are the ones that can really begin to challenge the status quo.
Why the resistance then?
Well, firstly there is the issue of subcontracting. Often businesses do not have contracts with their suppliers directly but with companies based in the countries themselves that source materials and labour on their behalf. Many companies do have their own ethical sourcing policies which will be part of the contracts they offer, but often this is not extended to subcontractors. There appears to be a reluctance within the business community to acknowledge that standards of subcontracted labour are the responsibility of the buyer. We believe that there’s no excuse for ethical businesses to shirk this responsibility. STOP THE TRAFFIK’s Make Fashion Traffik-Free Protocol is something we ask clothing companies to sign up and commit to which sets out our terms for fair labour. If companies are serious about ending trafficking in their supply chains then they need to get serious about addressing breaches of fair labour at all points in the chain.
Secondly, there’s the production cost. Many politicians debating the bill are concerned about the implications of these demands on consumers and how this might impact on poorer customers in developed nations. This is a misconception, though. The reality is that that paying labourers a fair wage for the garments they make as well as enforcing improved working conditions and workplace securities would involve an increase of just a couple of pence per garment. Factory owners in Bangladesh have told reporters that for just US$0.90 per pair, jeans can be produced in safe and humane working conditions but buyers for multinational corporations insist on US$0.75. Behaviours like these are the fuel for disasters like the one that happened Rana Plaza, leaving workers in dangerous environments with neither food nor voice and create the desperate circumstances in which traffickers thrive.
There’s another layer to it, though. Businesses have a legal obligation to make all necessary steps to act in the interest of, and earn profit for, their shareholders. This means that even if a director wants to address trafficking in their supply chains (and we know that there are many that do), they could still come under legal scrutiny for making a decision that improves the lives of workers if it means that shareholders lose out on revenue. To avoid being penalised for doing the right thing, conscientious directors and business leaders need this amendment so that the law is on their side.
This small amendment to the Companies Act 2006 is all that would be required to ensure that companies have a legal obligation to address poor labour standards and human trafficking across their entire production line. This is our best chance for some time to address the gaps in our laws that allow companies to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of impoverished communities.
We want you to join us in making sure this opportunity isn’t wasted. We want you to write to your MP to make sure your voice is heard. Click here to download a template letter, or feel free to write your own. http://www.stopthetraffik.org/gb/modernslaverybill
If you’re based outside the UK, we also want you to contact to your representatives to ask what commitments they are making to ending trafficked labour in global supply chains.
STOP THE TRAFFIK will also continue to encourage businesses to take up their responsibilities in ending trafficking. The fight to end trafficking involves a concentrated effort between lawmakers, industry and individual communities. This amendment, however, would give a legal basis to our demands that companies operating and selling in the UK are held accountable to their responsibilities to prevent exploitation in the production of the commodities we buy and love.
STOP THE TRAFFIK’s affiliate, Finance Against Trafficking is an organisation dedicated to helping businesses address human trafficking in their supply chains. They offer resources such as the Chain Checker, a free online tool to discover risks and vulnerabilities to trafficking within the business, highlight areas of concern and provide practical guidance and steps businesses can take to mitigate this risk.