Supply chain transparency – a burden for businesses, a role for customers

Supply chains, otherwise known as the network of different actors involved in the production, manufacture, distribution and retail sale of a final product, have increasingly come under the spotlight as a key site of modern slavery. Globalisation, outsourcing and cross-border division of labour have increased competitiveness, and incentivise businesses to drive down costs and maximise profits; relegating human rights concerns to the background, and increasing the likelihood of modern slavery. This is particularly the case for products as popular as tea, coffee, coal, sugar and tobacco, which have been found to be among the top eight items with an increased risk of slavery. Intended to illuminate the hidden reality of enslaved workers behind the everyday household products displayed in local supermarkets, the supply chain transparency has been hailed as one of the many strategies to counter modern slavery, and to hold companies profiting from it accountable.

Supply chain transparency is the backbone of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires every commercial organisation supplying goods or services to submit a slavery and trafficking statement for each financial year, wherein it must confirm the steps it has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains or in any part of its business, including due diligence measures and staff training. The MSA has created momentum on the issue, and inspired Australia to consider the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act with similar supply chain provisions.

Though broadly hailed as a milestone, some commentators have referred to the MSA as a missed opportunity. Indeed, the reporting requirement only applies to companies having a total turnover of £36 million. By requiring statements to be made easily accessible to the public, the MSA puts the onus on the consumer to make informed investment decisions, and motivates the everyday buyer to choose against modern slavery. The age of social media is also the age of information; and when it is so widely available, responsibility not only rests with the company, but the customer.


Child Labour – A Multi-Faceted Issue

On 12 June, lawyers, NGO workers, activists and members of the public worldwide came together to pledge their commitment to end a practice which, 15 years and countless efforts after the creation of the World Day Against Child Labour, remains widespread.

The International Labour Organization’s most recent estimate of children trapped in child labour is of 168 million, of which 85 million are in hazardous work. However, this widely cited figure is soon to reach its 5 year anniversary in 2018, prompting the question of whether the world has come any closer to eradicate child labour since it learned of its pervasiveness.

The causes behind child labour are as diverse as its manifestations. They include poverty, lack of
education, lack of laws prohibiting its practice, and even cultural perceptions. Gender also plays an important part in determining whether a child will be made to work, as girls are generally made to work at an earlier age than boys, and pushed towards domestic work in accordance with traditional gender roles.

Because child labour is often the result of legislative vacuums or poor enforcement of existing laws, it is intuitively – and mistakenly – confined to the local or national ambit. However, child labour can be increasingly attributed to global trends and the international community’s shortcomings in adequately addressing them. Just this week, the UN reported a record 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced in 2016 alone, of which children make up at least 11.25 million. The vicious circle of displacement sees thousands of families fleeing poverty or destitution, only to meet them later down the line. In such circumstances, children are often made to work in order to contribute to family expenses. Equally, the ongoing refugee crisis has shed light on the precarious situation affecting thousands of children in refugee camps in diverse European locations, many of whom turn to sex work to survive, whether of their own accord or coerced by criminal networks. Unaccompanied minors, alone and unsupervised, face a similar – if not considerably worse – fate.

There is no ‘hard and fast’ solution to the eradication of child labour. However, public awareness
campaigns, supply chain transparency, education, and comprehensive and appropriately enforceable laws can go a long way. Significant strides are being made with regard to the latter. India, among the countries reputed to have the highest child labour levels, most recently ratified the two ILO Conventions on children, namely the 1973 Minimum Age Convention and the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Although there is a long road to elimination of child labour, concrete steps in that direction should be celebrated, and taken as a model to follow.