Supply chains connect goods and services, linking entire communities in complex webs of production and consumption. They are the beating heart of economic activity that exists within and between borders, connecting approximately 80% of the $74 trillion global economy. Yet the same factors that have driven globalisation for the benefit of consumers have encouraged the proliferation of business models that perpetuate modern slavery throughout global supply chains.
At the Freedom Fund, we have seen first hand how frontline communities can be impacted by exploitative business practices in supply chains. In Thailand, migrant workers are trafficked and work in conditions of forced labour aboard fishing vessels that catch the seafood destined for supermarkets across the U.S. and EU. In the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu at the root of the $3 trillion global garment industry, adolescent girls are recruited into forms of bonded labour, working excessive hours for extremely low pay. And within the apparel and handicraft workshops of Jaipur, tens of thousands of children are trafficked from across India and forced to work in hazardous and illegal conditions that can cause irreparable physical harm.
Outside of our hotspot work, we have supported initiatives to increase transparency and accountability in global supply chains, including the Modern Slavery Registry to track company policies and responses to the UK Modern Slavery Act. While needed, these efforts have not moved the needle towards concrete corporate action. Supply chains continue to be riddled with abuse, with an estimated 16 million people working in conditions of forced labour in the private economy.
Increased attention on modern slavery risks has pushed it up the corporate agenda, and we acknowledge and welcome the positive steps taken by a number of businesses to address harm in their supply chains. Yet the commendable efforts of this leadership group do not disguise the fact that far too many lag behind – as do the incentives for them to act.
As we grow our supply chains work, we want to refocus our efforts in this space. This means embarking on a new strategic direction premised on the fundamental question: how can we create freedom in the supply chain?
We’ve identified three critical steps to achieving this goal. Our new approach focuses on seeding reforms throughout the supply chain ecosystem – from advocating for stronger government regulations; to incentivising corporate responses by increasing the financial and reputational costs of inaction; to supporting worker-driven initiatives to build power, voice and accountability from the ground-up.
Governments have the responsibility to use their legislative and administrative powers to eradicate modern slavery in supply chains. Transparency legislation, while a welcome step, is not a panacea. More can, and should, be done by governments to incentivise corporate action and sanction illicit behaviour. Whether through imposing mandatory human rights due diligence or exploring procurement or trade incentives, the state has the power to protect workers’ rights and drive up anti-slavery standards, and it should do just that.
The business of forced labour, fuelled by the demand for lower costs and shorter production times, has enabled corporations to profit from the abuse of workers in their supply chains. While many have woken up to the need to act, many businesses still lag behind. To advance the agenda, we believe the focus should be on developing coordinated sector-wide approaches with clear standards and enforceability. And for those corporations that do not live up to their responsibility to act, we must all agree to push all levers against inaction. This means supporting investigative journalism, commissioning critical research, or funding strategic litigation to ensure corporate accountability for involvement in slavery – a core element of our new legal initiatives strategic plan.
And at the root of each supply chain are the workers. As the least powerful actors they may pay the heaviest price through systematic violations of their fundamental rights, yet more often than not are excluded from government and business efforts to tackle slavery. In our hotspot programs, we adopt bottom-up approaches that are engaging at the lower tiers of the supply chain to strengthen collective agency and worker voice. We want to amplify this work at a global level, by directly supporting worker-driven efforts and initiatives that put the protection of workers’ rights and access to justice at the core of solutions to address slavery in supply chains.
We believe that the totality of these efforts can lead to a sea-change in supply chains and can create incentives on corporations to dig deeper through their business relationships, facilitate and enable access to remedy to those affected and ensure that workers are empowered and able to claim their rights for themselves.
This strategy is deliberately broad and ambitious, as we seek to harness our experience in supporting frontline supply chain efforts to catalyse further action in this space. Many organisations that are supporting or implementing global economy or supply chain-related initiatives will no doubt see their work reflected among the pillars of this strategic plan. As we start to put this plan into action over the next three years, we want to build collaborations with all stakeholders, including key donors, partners, business and grantees to move towards our end goal – to disrupt the status quo and truly see freedom in supply chains.
For more information, please email Chloé Bailey, Program Officer at [email protected]
Photo credit: Brent Lewin/Freedom Fund