Time to get serious about forced labour in supply chains

We now know that our shopping carts are full of forced labour. So why are governments and industry doing so little to stop it?

Genevieve LeBaronIn June 2014, The Guardian ran a headline news story revealing the widespread use of conditions it described as modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour by employers in the Thai prawn industry.  It traced the prawns into the freezers of some of the world’s largest supermarkets, including Walmart, Tesco and Costco.  Surprisingly little has changed since.

Policymakers in the retailers’ home countries have largely refused to intervene, claiming— as the UK’s Cameron government did— that it is ‘up to consumers whether they eat prawns processed in Thailand using slave labour’.  The US – which imports roughly 40% of Thailand’s shrimp exports – downgraded Thailand in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report and, like policymakers in the UK, has promised to ‘raise concerns’ with the Thai government over slavery and human trafficking.  But neither country has asked their supermarkets to stop selling goods knowingly produced with slave labour.  In fact, UK policymakers were so reluctant to tell businesses what to do that they asked a trade association – the British Retail Consortium – to recommend the steps that companies could take to eliminate their own human rights abuses.

Industry hasn’t done much better.  Retailers claim they are working with their suppliers to deepen existing ‘social auditing’ programmes, which – it is worth pointing out – either failed to detect or address this problem in the first place.  Then, towards the end of July, representatives of US and UK supermarkets reportedly met in Thailand to create an ‘industry action group’ with plans to design yet another corporate social responsibility (CSR) benchmark for the seafood industry.  Simply put, industry efforts to date have been largely focused around the same voluntary CSR and certification efforts that failed to detect or address the rampant labour abuses in the first place.

Meanwhile, prawn-eaters – like cannabis smokers, hot chocolate drinkers, and gold and cotton wearers around the world – continue to consume the fruits of forced labour.

Thanks to careful research by academics, reporters and NGOs – and the testimonies and resistance of exploited workers themselves – we now know that our grocery carts are filled with the produce of forced labour.  In the UK, severe exploitation is routinely uncovered in the food industry, such as among chicken and egg collectors, onion pickers, mushroom gatherers and fishermen.  While exact numbers remain difficult to pinpoint, week after week, another household staple is tarnished with new evidence of workers’ bondage and exploitation.

The evidence of illegality and human suffering has piled up high enough: it’s surely time to confront the reality that these are not just ‘one-off’ discoveries attributable to unscrupulous employers or temporary glitches in an otherwise effective social auditing system. The reality now is that severe labour exploitation is now endemic in certain industries, and has become a solid and predictable feature of the low-cost, high-volume retail business model that currently reigns in the global economy.

So why are governments and industry doing so little to stop it?  Walmart made over $17 billion in profits last year.  Tesco made around £3.7 billion.  It is surely not unreasonable to ask that these businesses find a way to procure prawns made without reportedly beating and killing workers.  Isn’t it?

Yet the global wave of ‘anti-slavery’ legislation passed by governments over the past five years has done little to tackle the business models of forced labour.   Indeed, while this body of legislation has raised criminal justice consequences for individual perpetrators of forced labour, governments have refused to impose new responsibilities on retailers.  Take the UK’s 2014 draft Modern Slavery Bill.  In its current form, the Bill doesn’t even require companies to report on their own voluntary efforts to prevent or address slavery in their supply chains, as the Draft Modern Slavery Joint Select Committee recommended and has been mandated in legislation recently passed in California. As for imposing legally binding restrictions on businesses, well, say no more!

On the industry side, retailers continue to tinker around the edges of the problem with auditing and certification schemes.  But there is little evidence to suggest that they are tackling those underlying dynamics within their supply chains that fuel demand for severe exploitation and sub-minimum wage labour, such as downward pressure on prices and margins, unpredictability of demand and tightening speed to market.  Like many of the problems associated with subcontracting – itself a technique to reduce cost and liability – these dynamics somehow always seem to remain off the table for change.

Eradicating forced labour will require profound changes to contemporary business models – and these are not changes that consumers can achieve on their own.  Too many products depend on too severe forms of exploitation to simply ask consumers to keep slavery out of their shopping carts.  And, even for those who are endeavouring to, this is no easy task, given that the credibility of the ‘ethical’ auditing system consumers depend on to inform their purchasing choices is at an all-time low following a high-profile string of factories that have been ‘certified’ only to collapse, burn down, or have severe exploitation discovered in them weeks later!

In short, it’s time for policymakers and industry to get serious about tackling slavery in supply chains.