Businesses & investors have important role to play in ending modern slavery

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By: Kevin Thomas, Director of Shareholder Engagement

The International Labour Organization (ILO) released its new estimates of the number of people who were victims of modern slavery today in New York at the United Nations. The numbers are staggering – an estimated 40.3 million people subjected to some form of modern slavery last year.

Those numbers include 24.9 million people working in forced labour situations, at work under duress due to multiple forms of coercion such as withholding wages, retaining identity documents, physical violence or threats of violence, threats against families, and sexual violence.

Of those 24.9 million, the ILO says, “16 million were victims of forced labour exploitation in economic activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing, 4.8 million were victims of forced sexual exploitation, and 4.1 million were victims of forced labour imposed by state authorities.” The other 15 million included in the larger modern slavery estimate were living in forced marriages – 37% of those as children.

A significant portion of the forced labour estimates should be of direct concern to global businesses and investors: manufacturing made up 15% of cases identified, construction another 7%, and commercial agriculture and fishing another 12%.

“In many cases,” the ILO notes, “the products they made and the services they provided ended up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels. Forced labourers produced some of the food we eat and the clothes we wear, and they have cleaned the buildings in which many of us live or work.”

None of this is necessary or unavoidable.

All of it is unconscionable.

Governments clearly have a fundamental role in extending social protections, protecting migrant workers, regulating recruitment agencies, stepping up enforcement of labour laws, and prosecuting those responsible. They can also establish due diligence and transparency requirements for global businesses, as is being done in a growing number of jurisdictions.

But businesses and their investors should not wait for governments to act.

Businesses can establish effective due diligence systems in their supply chains, develop better supply chain traceability systems to identify and address risks at lower tiers of the chain, and implement supplier standards to address known problems such as the payment of recruitment fees and withholding of passports for migrant workers. They can join global business initiatives to work with peers on eliminating modern slavery.

Finally, businesses and investors together can encourage government initiatives that support due diligence and transparency amongst their industry peers and promote better investment decision-making. Domestically and internationally, the development of well-designed policy and legislation can help both businesses and their investors establish a consistent and systematic response to the scourge of forced labour.