Businesses Can Help End Slavery In Supply Chains

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

We don't want to think that slave labor is part of our daily economy. But modern slave labor is found in corporate supply chains around the globe - some $150 billion dollars of it every year. Ignorance can be no excuse. The tools are available for businesses to put an end to supply chain slavery.

Evidence of slavery is found in supply chains from the production of goods such as cocoa and cotton, the fishing industry, and the manufacturing of products like cell phones and clothing garments. A 2017 report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that modern slavery is in corporate supply chains around the world and amounts to an estimated $150 billion worth of illicit profits annually. The U.S. Department of Labor identified more than 100 goods believed to be produced around the world with forced or child labor.

Freedom Fund programs work to end slavery

Businesses can work to end slavery in their supply chains, as a report by Freedom Fund found. The report summarizes the evaluations of the non-profit group’s programs in India. What the evaluations discovered is that the programs stop abuses, protect workers, and change structural conditions to keep families out of bonded and forced labor.

Freed Fund’s programs in India are part of a five-year campaign to end bonded labor in India. The organization’s first program began in 700 villages in the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with the goal to help families in lower castes to escape debt bondages in industries that include brick kilns, stone quarries, and agriculture. The second program began in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and aims to stop forced and bonded labor in cotton spinning mills, which employs young women and girls.

Evaluation of Freedom Fund programs shows they are working

The evaluation of the programs revealed that they are working. From 2015 to 2018 the amounts of households in bonded labor decreased, on average, from 56 to 11 percent in the 1,100 villages targeted by the program in northern and southern India. That is equal to 125,000 fewer people in bonded labor. The proportion of households in targeted areas with a child in bonded labor decreased from 13 percent to one percent in southern India nad 12 to three percent in northern India.

In Southern India, the evaluation of Freedom Fund programs found that child marriage and school drop-outs decreased by more than half from 2016 to 2018. Communities served by the partner organization, MSEMVS2 had 55 percent more savings than non-targeted communities, plus 31 percent faster wage growth and increased food security. Those communities also have greater access to government services, higher school attendance, are three times more likely to use free government medical services, and have more households find jobs under the MGNREGA3 scheme for rural employment.

Over 11,000 young women and girls in southern India finished a course on workers’ rights and gender equality. Of those who attended, 39 percent had a “marked improvement” on mental health score and 42 percent improved in resilience scores. In both southern and northern India, community-organized SelfHelp Groups (SHGs) provided alternative loan sources to exploitative money lenders. In northern India, SHG membership increased from 35 to 94 percent among families in bonded labor.

How companies can reduce slavery in their supply chains

There are tools out there to help companies identify their labor and human trafficking risks and eliminate them. One of those is the Interactive Map for Business of Anti-Human Trafficking Organizations, developed by the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (GBCAT). The map helps companies identify the organizations that partner with businesses to address slavery and provide trainings.

Another tool is specific to the seafood industry. Developed at the University of British Columbia, it allows seafood companies to find the risks of forced labor in their supply chains. The seafood industry is one of the largest employers globally and 70 percent of its export production is from developing countries. Forced labor is common in the seafood sector.

Tools are only good if they are used. A study by Thomson Reuters found that less than half of the companies surveyed had training for the risks of slave labor and human trafficking. The report discovered that “the need to screen third parties regularly, rather than just at the on-boarding stage, is widely recognized as being an important tool in the continuing fight against financial crime.” But screening is not implemented widely in companies. Corporations that participated in the survey only screened about one-third of their relationships with third parties such as vendors and suppliers.

If the business world became very serious about facing labor and human trafficking risks, slavery from supply chains could be eliminated. As with many problems, the solution begins with having the will to tackle it.