BRUSSELS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Businesses seeking to clean up their supply chains must invest in improving workers’ lives rather than relying on technology or short-term fixes, according to campaigners and major companies attending a modern-day slavery conference on Wednesday.
With companies facing growing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure their operations are slavery-free, many are taking shortcuts, including superficial audits, instead of engaging with employees, said British rights activist Andy Hall.
“Hotlines and smartphone apps (allowing staff to report abuses) are widely hailed ... but do not give any power to workers to organize, bargain and improve their conditions,” said Hall, who has worked on migrant workers’ rights in Thailand.
“We need more transparency from companies,” Hall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference in the European Parliament in Brussels.
“And audits - which are often too quick and just focused on paperwork - need to go beyond factories and look at recruitment practices and housing,” .
Louise Nicholls of Marks & Spencer said the British retailer was striving to ensure its audits are more comprehensive than most, and backed by efforts to educate suppliers and workers about the drivers of modern slavery, and how to spot the signs.
“We are looking to scratch beneath the surface ... to carry out assessments which can give us real insight as to what is actually going on,” the retailer’s head of human rights said at a panel on supply chain forced labor held in London on Tuesday.
From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex. Multiple layers across various countries - whether in sourcing raw materials or creating the final product - makes it hard to identify exploitation.
Companies will only succeed at ensuring their entire operations are free of abuse if they adopt a bottom-up strategy to reforming their supply chains, said Daniela Colaiacovo of the Goldlake Group, a gold mining company that operates in Honduras.
“You need to engage with local communities, treat workers like partners, give them benefits and training and involve them in the business process,” said the co-founder of Goldlake, which produces sustainable gold for the luxury jewelry market.
From tobacco in Bangladesh and palm oil in Borneo to diamonds in the Democratic Republic of Congo, investors should put pressure on industries and companies to change their practices, said Frida Arounsavath of campaign group Swedwatch.
She said the world will not meet the United Nations’ 17 global goals - including ending extreme poverty and achieving gender equality - by 2030 unless firms end forced labor.
“Companies need to identify high-risk areas and consult with vulnerable groups such as women, children and indigenous groups,” added Arounsavath of Swedwatch, which monitors the environmental and human rights impacts of Swedish companies.
About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Julian Lageard of U.S. technology giant Intel, the world’s largest computer chipmaker, said big businesses need to invest in women in the workforce and ensure their rights are protected.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Jared Ferrie and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org