Politicians have been hesitant to tackle the issue for fear of upsetting business. What will it take for business leaders themselves to play a more central role in addressing slavery?
I recently saw a talk given by Charmian Gooch of Global Witness in which she noted the difficulties campaigners faced in the 1990s working for transparency in the oil industry’s financial transactions. In 1997 a demand for such accountability was regarded as hopelessly naive. And yet by 2013 two-thirds of the oil industry is covered by such financial transparency.
Anti-Slavery International has often been accused of similar naivety, particularly in our demands that the world seek new ways of doing business, ways that regard the use of forced labour and child slavery as totally unacceptable rather than regrettably unavoidable.
Modern-day slavery isn’t distant to us, we are all implicated, whether we want to be or not. We all carry mobile phones which contain the element coltan. Coltan is only available from mines in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) rife with slavery and child labour. The clothes on our backs are similarly polluted. The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, which feeds the production of many garment manufacturers is brought in each year by the forced labour of children. The mills that spin such cotton into thread in southern India are often run on the enslavement of girls and young women.
The situation is equally bad in the factories of Delhi in north India where children are routinely employed to do embroidery work. Police often raid such factories, not to resuce the children though, but rather to extract bribes from the owners.
The manslaughter, enslavement and torture of vulnerable workers in the global south, many of them children, to produce goods for the high streets of the global north is a result of business’ ceaseless search for cheap production, scarce commodities or both.
Companies do social auditing of supply chains, but this is often a dubious practice. It has not led to any noticeable improvements. At best the approach is a blunt tool with only a relatively small number of inspections signalled early enough to the factories, leaving time forabuses can be covered up or temporarily discontinued until the audit is passed. At worst the approach can be corrupted with auditors filing reports of clean bills of health on factories in which abuses are commonplace. In too frequent instances the woeful and tragic inadequacy of ethical auditing has been exposed by lethal fires in factories that had been given clean bills of ethical health.
This is depressing.