Adidas' slavery buster hopes technology can give workers a voice

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Adidas executive Aditi Wanchoo is on a mission - to wipe out any slavery in the German sportswear company’s supply chain, and she hopes giving workers the technology to speak out will help.

With a background in corporate social responsibility at consultancy firm Accenture, Wanchoo was hired 18 months ago in a new position created by Adidas, one of the first companies to set up a role dedicated to fighting slavery.

In recent years modern-day slavery has increasingly come under the spotlight, putting regulatory and consumer pressure on companies to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor, child labor and other forms of slavery.

As apparel and footwear industries rely heavily on outsourcing, sportswear companies have faced growing scrutiny.

Wanchoo said Adidas had been actively working on this issue since it was revealed at the 1998 World Cup that footballs were produced by child laborers in India and companies realized they did not have control over their suppliers.

Governments are now trying to tackle the problem with new legislation, such as the UK’s 2015 law requiring companies to disclose how they are ensuring supply chains are slavery free.

“We have found that the UK Modern Slavery Act and recent legislative action in France and Australia have helped take the conversations to the boardroom,” Wanchoo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview this week in London.

“My role was created to look at building relevant partnerships to continue our work on addressing potential modern slavery risks for our extended supply chain, i.e. our Tier 2 processing facilities and Tier 3 raw material sources.”

Slavery has emerged as a major global problem with the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation estimating there are nearly 46 million slaves in the world.

The United Nations has a global goal to eradicate forced labor and slavery by 2030 and end all child labor by 2025.

Wanchoo said she was tackling the issue in various ways such as collaborating with other companies, NGOs and governments, and training suppliers about the risks of bonded labor and the impact of recruitment fees on workers.


She said Adidas was also on a major drive to encourage workers to speak up and use this information to eradicate slavery and improve workers’ conditions.

The company already has “worker hotlines” giving 300,000 factory workers in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia the opportunity to anonymously ask questions, make suggestions or express concerns via text messages and smart phone applications.

But the company found this was not enough, and over the past year Adidas has run a pilot project in China with apps for workers to anonymously report issues - data that is collected and then analyzed.

Wanchoo said the aim is to introduce such a system in all of the company’s 105 or so primary factories in the next five years and then look at cascading this down to second-tier suppliers.

In Turkey these worker grievance systems had uncovered concerns about child labor and reports of illegal workers from Turkmenistan, while in Asia workers had complained about abuse by supervisors, wage issues and food, she said.

She added that efforts to hear directly from workers was paying off. Last year campaign organization KnowTheChain ranked Adidas top out of 20 firms, chosen because of their size, for its efforts to eliminate forced labor and human trafficking.

“We want to make it as easy and anonymous as possible for workers,” said Hong Kong-based Wanchoo, whose official title is senior manager - development partnerships, social and environmental affairs at Adidas.

She acknowledged this did not always go down well with suppliers who aim to keep costs as competitive as possible.

“Sometimes there can be resistance from suppliers, but we work with them to demonstrate how this can help them in the long run by improving supply chain transparency, communication, productivity and worker retention,” she said.