Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Supply chains roundtable: Kevin Hyland

Kevin Hyland
26 June 2016

Question 2 – what should global supply chain governance look like?

First of all, global supply chain governance cannot have a global one size fits all solution. Governance programmes need to be tailored to the particular risks of different countries and regions, sectors and business partners. Just as with other forms of trafficking and slavery, vulnerabilities to forced labour arise out of a number of different factors, from precarious immigration status to the socio-political, economic and geographical particularities of a region. The reason that Bangladesh, Haiti and Cambodia, for example, are growing factory hubs is not related to an abundance of natural resources. Rather, it is related to the fact that these countries are coming out of civil wars and are home to an impoverished labour force. In regions with low levels of stability and scarce job opportunities, workers end up having to take whatever job they can in order to survive. This limited choice makes these workers vulnerable to insecure and exploitative work conditions, including forced labour. Slave drivers are often then ready to exploit that vulnerability situation for profit.

In many global supply chains, a few large firms are supplied by a competitive market of lower-tier suppliers often in poorly regulated jurisdictions, displacing risk down the chain. In countries with weaker regulations, the bottom-level suppliers are left having to deal with rapid changes in order specifications and turnaround times, and the workers, in need of any work, are forced to deal with highly flexible and often exploitative working conditions.

Any global supply chain governance model that does not consider these root causes cannot be fit for purpose. To be sure, knowing your business risk is integral to any global supply chain. But key to knowing and mitigating this risk is understanding the wider context of any operating region and working to develop tailored solutions.

Question 5 – what are the benefits and drawbacks of global supply chains as a 'model' for production and development?

Cheaper and greater access to products is commonly quoted as a benefit of global supply chains. However this cannot be a recognised as a benefit if in any instance it is achieved through exploitation. The hidden exploitation of workers that global supply chains have inadvertently helped facilitate is certainly one of the biggest draw backs. The more global the supply chain, the longer the chain of accountability and the greater the risk of undetected exploitation.

The bargaining power of purchasing companies at the top of the supply chains is enormous. The trafficking of citizens and exploitation of workers is only profitable insofar as somebody is willing to buy the goods these workers produce. In most cases, the immediate buyer of such goods is another company. Consequently, the behaviour of buying companies, particularly those at the top of a supply chain, can be an important determinant of standards throughout the chain.

Yet this does not mean that global supply chains cannot be a force for good. If adequate protection measures for workers are in place, global supply chains can encourage other businesses to raise their labour standards.

Global supply chains can bring decent gainful employment to communities that can help generate income and improve quality of life. By bringing new forms of employment to areas where work opportunities may have previously been limited, businesses can in fact help avoid people being trafficked by providing them with alternative economic opportunities.

Question 6 – what were your goals and hopes for this year’s International Labour Conference on global supply chains?

Tackling modern slavery and forced labour in global supply chains is at the heart of the International Labour Organisation’s mission and ethos to promote jobs and protect people through the decent work agenda. I expected discussions at the International Labour Conference to reflect the gravity of modern slavery and forced labour and to reflect the urgency of the need to address these most serious forms of exploitation in global supply chains.

I wanted to see more countries follow the UK’s lead in adopting the new 2014 Protocol of the Forced Labour Convention (1930), which updates and reinforces global action to end forced labour, including trafficking in persons and slavery-like practices. I was happy to see France and Mali do so.

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