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.