UK businesses must make tackling modern slavery business-critical, experts warn

EXCLUSIVE: UK businesses must move beyond viewing modern slavery as a “tick box” exercise and do more to combat cases at every level of their supply chains, according to representatives from the likes of Marks and Spencer (M&S), Innocent Drinks and PwC.

Speaking at edie’s Sustainable Supply Chain conference in London on Wednesday (June 27), the business representatives warned that no business was immune to forced labour, child labour and other human rights breaches in its supply chain, as they urged delegates to embed tougher human rights goals in supplier vetting measures.

Addressing the crowd at the 99 City Road Conference Centre, Innocent Drinks’ sustainability officer, Katie Leggett, said that businesses needed to move beyond approaching modern slavery as “solely an issue of business risk”.

“Since I have started working in human rights, a lot of companies are focusing on business risk in their discussions on the topic, and I think that is the wrong way to do things if you want to create genuine improvement,” Leggett said.

“I genuinely believe that every organisation should be putting the individual at the centre of their human rights strategy. Your business is only made up of the people that work for it and within its supply chains, so if you are not looking after those people, you are not looking after your business and this level of care cannot be achieved through a business-risk approach.”

Leggett cited the beverage firm’s recent work in Africa, where it built a secondary school for 30 girls after finding a child labour hotspot in its fruit supply chain, as an example of a more “personal approach that goes beyond compliance”.

The programme, which took place after Innocent Drinks discovered workers on farms were bringing their children to work as they could not afford to send them to school, also saw Innocent lobby local authorities to call for education policy adjustments.

Modern mitigation

Discussions of modern slavery elicit imagery often associated with developing countries. However, 2016 figures estimate there are 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK and the number of people identified as slaves in the country continues to increase each year.

During a workshop at the event, many delegates noted that achieving boardroom buy-in for anti-slavery measures required them to position the issue as a risk to business cost and reputation. However, the majority noted that their organisations had not taken action to go beyond complying with the Modern Slavery Act’s requirement for companies to publish a statement on how they will address the issue.

Echoing Leggett’s sentiments, M&S’s senior ethical trade and human rights manager for Plan A Foods, Victoria Dodman, said that issues surrounding forced labour were “bigger than any business or industry” and that listening to workers’ voices was critical in tackling the “root causes of modern slavery at every tier” of supply chains.

“We are not going to pretend that we have not been affected,” Dodman said. “Modern slavery is evolving and so the way corporates approach the issue needs to be flexible and ever-changing.

“If, on the first day that a woman is coming into work in a factory, she is already indebted, and it will take her four months’ salary to earn even £1, something is wrong. So, we are really taking a closer look at our supply chains to improve our policies and help vulnerable individuals.”

Dodman added that by funding the Modern Slavery hotline, which provides support regarding any cases of modern slavery within businesses and notifies parent corporates of slavery hotspots, M&S has come to “grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of the problem” after it received more than 3,000 tip-off calls in a year.

“No company is immune to modern slavery in its supply chain,” she concluded.

M&S was last year ranked as the top FTSE100 company for taking meaningful action on slavery by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, after launching its modern slavery toolkit, which encourages competitors in the retail industry to adopt best practice policies, alongside conducting annual ethical business audits across its supply chains.

M&S also trains its employees and supply chain workers on how to spot the signs of slavery and how to escalate a case once it is identified, as well as working with enforcement agencies in the countries where it operates.

Looking to the future, Dodman revealed at the conference that M&S planned to set up a business network to monitor compliance to human rights laws and policies across its supply chain tiers, and to encourage the rest of the sector to follow suit.

Similarly, PwC’s senior corporate sustainability manager, Latifa Chomoko, noted the importance of moving beyond compliance, to ensure modern slavery isn’t viewed as a “tick box” activity.

 “No company can say they have zero risk of modern slavery, whether they operate in the UK or globally, and whether they offer goods or services,” Chomoko told delegates.

“It is naive as a corporate, be you a manufacturer, retailer or consultancy, to think that human rights violations will not be happening on your turf in your supply chains. Our analysis found that 50% of companies in the UK are pre-compliance [with the Modern Slavery Act].

“Such a sensitive and pressing issue cannot become a ‘tick-box’ activity for businesses; once they have released a statement, they need to embed this into their strategies.”

Sarah George  

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie