Modern Slavery & Supply Chain Summit: A Post-Summit Reflection

By Jack Kelly

Executive summary

The latest figures reveal that there are approximately 40 million people living in modern slavery worldwide. According to the International Labour Organisation, 25 million people are trapped in forced labour while children account for 10 million of the overall total. Interestingly, modern slavery used to be perceived as an issue that existed in third world countries, when numerous investigations proved it’s a worldwide problem.
The purpose of the Second Global Modern Slavery & Supply Chain Summit was to move from statement to strategy. It was an opportunity for businesses in multiple sectors to outline their key practices and findings and share with others how the issue could and should be approached.

Key themes

The summit revealed that working collaboratively is essential to making moves in the right direction. Transparency is needed; from head companies to their supply chains, employer to employee, an open conversation is the first step to make.

Business responsibility was similarly a recurring theme in the summit. A push for businesses to accommodate new policies and practices is an example of this. For instance, Paul Gerrard, Group Policy Director at the Co-op, notes how the company addresses victims of modern slavery, namely, they help them recuperate before offering them a job.

Establishing awareness of modern slavery is arguably the most important theme extracted from the summit. According to Lola Young, The Baroness Young of Hornsey OBE, the concept of modern slavery was relatively unknown territory until 2009. Consequently, victims are hidden and neglected. As a result, there was a strong favour for hardening the legislation from law and enforcement representatives. Compiling a central list of who wrote statements and drawing public bodies were probed as possible ways to increase compliance and awareness in the business world.

The Baroness Young of Hornsey OBE

On the regulatory side, while the second stage of the Modern Slavery Act is much needed some believed that Brexit shifts the debate away. Inability to develop the second stage of the legislation has to do with the toxicism towards immigration in the government.

Board level responsibility against modern slavery

Business accountability is integral to charging a proactive response in addressing modern slavery and human rights issues. One of the key problems faced is in middle management. Currently, some businesses are guilty of ignoring slavery, especially when there is an extra demand for production but no extra income in peak times. Richard Batten, former EMEA Board Member and Global Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at JLL, said, in relation to where responsibility lies with modern slavery that ‘it has to come from the top’. All employers need to demonstrate effective leadership skills, namely, providing a clear direction for all employees and implementing business values and ethos. Moreover, businesses should face imposed sanctions if they are not compliant with the legislation. In a closing remark, Richard said that ‘we will lose clients if we do not engage this issue’.

Working together achieves more

Working collaboratively is paramount in business. Many companies that operate globally face increasing difficulty with regulation of practices in their supply chains. Laura Okkonen, Head of Human Rights at Nokia, said that while based in Finland, the company actively engages and has partnerships around the world to try to reduce the likelihood of exploitation. They developed lengthy relationships with their suppliers to establish trust, integrity and business values. Laura said that technology is an ‘enabler for change’. When asked how much of a risk there was for cases of modern slavery within Nokia’s supply chain, she responded that 98% of employees had received formal education while the remaining 2% were in manufacturing. Hence, there was a low risk of exploitation across the board.

Tim Pilch, Head of Ethical Trade, identified a key problem faced at Pentland Brands. He said it is incredibly difficult to monitor the recruitment process when agencies are used to get people into their supply chains. Both speakers alluded to the importance of establishing close relationships with a wide range of groups. This increases the likelihood of cohesion and simultaneously increases the scope to identify symptoms of modern slavery in the workplace.

Tim Pilch, Pentland Brands and Laura Okkonen, Nokia

Celine Gilart, Head of Social Impact at Twinings, commented on the company’s efforts to bridge the gap between employers and employees. Twinings employ a regional manager to regulate the performance and conditions in the supply chain. Focus groups are held 3-4 times a week ‘to improve the quality of life for employees’. This practice is twofold; namely, it demonstrates high ethical standards and a duty of care to employees. Secondly, it is an example of supplier empowerment since they are assuming responsibility for their region. In other words, suppliers are not spoon-fed.

Awareness and enforcement

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a revolutionary, innovative and moral piece of legislation. However, it is widely accepted that not enough enforcement nor awareness is being achieved. Therefore, a crucial theme was to develop a strategy that illuminates the dark corners of modern slavery.

Mark Heath, Deputy Director of Business Change at Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), congratulated the efforts to revitalise the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In particular, he would like to see increased attention to business accountability. More specifically, the annual statements that detail the internal actions being taken. He said, ‘law enforcement will view modern slavery statements as a tool in the investigative processes’. They offer an insight into the business attitudes, practices and responses to modern slavery to determine whether they are compliant.

What does the future hold?

‘Right now we see a political opportunity to push the legislation but it is unlikely to continue when the British Prime Minister Theresa May – the person behind the Modern Slavery Act – is gone’, some sources quoted at the summit. An inability to develop the second stage of the legislation has to do with the toxicism towards immigration in the government. Many supply chains use unskilled workers from abroad to carry out basic production tasks. Thus, it is unrealistic for border enforcement to only ‘cherry pick’ skilled workers. Conversely, other speakers believed that Brexit is not an incentive to drop the agenda.

Big issue. Many decisions. Action required. Business leaders and policymakers have more work to do. Vanessa Di Cuffa, People Change Director at ABP Food Group, suggested that there are three stages to conquer before defeating modern slavery: awareness, scale and complexity.

‘Let’s make it the beginning of the end of modern slavery’, Vanessa Di Cuffa concluded.

Additional information

Our next conference will take place on 19-20 April 2018 in London.

Find out more about the 3rd Modern Slavery & Human Rights in Supply Chain Conference here:

Found the article of interest? Then take a look at the upcoming Modern Slavery & Human Rights in Supply Chain Conference here.