Protesters march on Walmart in Bellevue on Black Friday in 2013. Rick Barry/Demotix. All rights reserved.In 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 have been 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 – failed to detect or address this problem in the first place. Representatives of US and UK supermarkets reportedly met in Thailand towards the end of July to create an ‘industry action group’ that will 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.
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 household staples are tarnished with new evidence of workers’ bondage and exploitation.
The evidence of illegality and human suffering has piled up high enough. It’s 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 endemic in certain industries. It 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 farmed without recourse to the beating and killing of workers. Is 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 the California state legislature recently mandated. 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 the underlying dynamics of 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. These are not changes that consumers can achieve on their own. Too many products depend on severe forms of exploitation to simply ask consumers to keep slavery out of their shopping carts. This is impossible for even the most conscientious of consumers to achieve, as the credibility of our ‘ethical’ auditing system has been in tatters ever since a string of ‘certified’ factories collapsed, burned down, or had 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.
An original version of this article was published on the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) blog.
This article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.