Big brands from banks to casinos unite to fight slavery in Asia

PHNOM PENH, Jan 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From hotel chains to clothing brands, a group of companies in Asia is hoping that a corporate-backed movement to end modern slavery will succeed where activists have failed.

The casino and hotel giant MGM China Holdings Ltd. recently signed the “business pledge against modern slavery”, an initiative of the Hong Kong-based non-profit, the Mekong Club.

“We believe by taking a public stance we may also contribute to encouraging others to join the fight,” said Grant Bowie, MGM’s CEO.

“There needs to be more business engagement across the region,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email. “After all two thirds of the world’s slaves are reported to be in Asia.”

About 40 million people were trapped as slaves in 2016 - mostly women and girls - in forced labour and forced marriages, according to the first joint effort by key rights groups to count the number of victims worldwide, published in September.

Forced labour was most prevalent in Asia, where four out of every 1,000 people were victims of the crime, found the report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and human rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Activists have fought for years to end the trade and their main tool has been to “name and shame” companies, but it hasn’t worked, according to Mekong Club CEO Matt Friedman.

He said that only about 66,000 people were freed from slavery last year, globally. While activists often see the business community as the enemy, there is actually “tremendous goodwill”.

“If you do nothing to nurture that goodwill, it’s a waste,” said Friedman.

The Mekong Club created the business pledge against modern slavery in order to capitalise on corporate support.

So far, six companies have signed the pledge, which requires them to take concrete steps, which include monitoring operations and creating policies to prevent slavery.

One signatory, VF Co., began in 2016 to audit 120 factories that supply materials for its brands, which include The North Face, Wrangler and Vans.

Most of the factories are in China, Korea, Taiwan and India, said Craig Hodges, a spokesman. He said the audits have so far turned up “nothing extreme”, but they have uncovered some problems including poor accommodation for migrant workers.

“The factories are given six months to address the issues and we re-audit to ensure they have been corrected,” he said. “If they have not corrected the issue, we then reject the facility and it is prohibited from working with VF.”

While the spotlight has long been on the apparel industry, it affects other not so obvious sectors too, such as banking.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia became the latest company to commit to the business pledge, signing this month, said Friedman.

Forced labour, mostly in Asia and the Pacific, generates $150 billion per year, according to the United Nations’ ILO.

Friedman said the Mekong Club’s finance working group “is looking to find the nexus of this money in relationship to banks.”

The hotel and casino industry is also particularly vulnerable to forced labour, said Bowie of MGM.

Hotel rooms can be used for exploitation, for example, while staff, “particularly those recruited or subcontracted via unscrupulous agencies”, may be victims of bonded labour.

In addition to doing the right thing, he said, there is a business case for rooting out slavery.

“Businesses are at risk of severe reputational damage and loss of market share and consumer confidence if they are found to have slavery in their supply chains,” said Bowie.