How intelligent are we in our fight against exploitation?

I recently took some time to do some calculations and realised I’ve reached over a 1000 people in raising awareness of labour exploitation, through various speaking engagements and workshops. When talking to people at these events, it’s apparent that there is still a feeling that labour exploitation doesn’t happen in the UK. People come to me saying, “I didn’t realise”, “I thought it happened in other countries” and “You have made me think”.  These are all positive sentiments but mean nothing without action.

Raising awareness takes people so far. The next, most important part is – what do I do now? In our busy lives, we experience pressure from all corners of the business community and increasing pressure from stakeholders, who suffer disillusionment with the irresponsible nature of the money-making community – profit at everyone’s expense. How do we tackle abhorrent labour exploitation to make a difference? 

A recent report by CIOB “Construction and the Modern Slavery Act” observes that it’s not enough to raise awareness or even set up business models or frameworks to address the issue. There needs to be a real sea change in attitude and progress needs to be slow, steady and impactful. There is no easy tick-box exercise or magic bullet that will lead to the elimination of exploitation, and to think so is what adds to the problem. 

The key is to start asking questions – get to know the problem, just like any other business critical issue. There are lots of business models out there that provide frameworks for organisational response – BRE’s Ethical Labour Standard and the ISO 20400 to name a couple. Before launching into these we need to take an interest.

Within my specialist role at Action Sustainability and the Supply Chain Sustainability School, I’m part of an industry collaborative group – the GLAA (Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority) Construction Forum. Every quarter, we come together to identify opportunities for alliance, to send the message to the industry that exploitation is happening within, and to identify consistent approaches and tools that the industry can utilise. 

At a recent GLAA session, one enforcement officer shared the result of a recent operation in London. A residence was raided, £250,000 in cash was seized and – more shockingly – hundreds of fake IDs to gain access to a construction site, were found. When deciding what remediation tactics are needed, this sort of intelligence is invaluable to any organisation. The officer continued to share that organised gangs use genuine labour to provide a veneer of authenticity, whilst under the surface they use these networks to inject exploited labour.

Understanding this kind of intelligence is part of my day job, so I make time to find out what the lay of the land is. Realistically however, organisations must focus not only on this, but many other key sustainability challenges – skills shortages, equality and diversity, carbon reduction and waste reduction, to name a few. Not everyone has time to look at these issues and investigate intelligence, so networking and collaborating play a strategic part. Organisations must identify information sources. These are good places to start (though not an exhaustive list):

  • Walk Free Foundation – Provides a global context to labour exploitation, shows hotspots and political state of affairs in terms of trades and countries most vulnerable.
  • GLAA (Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority) – Works with law enforcement to identify criminality and support victims of labour and sexual exploitation.  Release bulletins providing intelligence on the results of raids and how criminal practices are embedded within organisations.
  • Twitter – I know this sounds unreliable, but I’ve personally learnt a lot by signing up to organisations through Twitter, such as Unseen, GLAA, Stop the Traffik, Walk Free Foundation and local law enforcement agencies.  Up-to-the-minute and targeted communication provides invaluable intelligence on how exploitation can thrive, and how organisations across a multitude of industries are fighting exploitation.

Many organisations can help you, but I always advise my clients to start a conversation first, not only within their own organisation, but also with their peers and even (*gasp*) competitors.  By asking questions, you can sense any problems that may exist within your organisation or supply chain. It’s important to assess what you don’t know and streamline your intelligence process to make sure you have a handle on what’s going on out there and understand how you can respond to it.

Our ever-changing business landscape means companies can suffer confusion or inertia when determining a course of action, but many specialists exist that can help you rise to the challenge. It’s no longer acceptable to refrain from making sizable impact on modern slavery because it’s in the “too difficult” box …the first step is to simply ask questions.

Helen Carter is a Lead Consultant for Action Sustainability and Infrastructure Sector Lead for the Supply Chain Sustainability School.

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