By - Brian Iselin
Published : 14-12-2018
With approximately two year’s experience speaking to big multinational businesses about modern slavery and their workplaces and supply chains, slavefreetrade has already been able to observe the thinking and working of these businesses as it relates to modern slavery and human rights more broadly. And, in short, the portents are not great. We believe there is a Godot, but we are still waiting.
The very first thing we have learned is that there is a predictable pattern to the barriers to tackling modern slavery. And none were what we would call ‘substantial’ issues. By substantial barriers we would be talking about failing to actually agree with the premise that modern slavery is bad, or that human rights don’t belong in workplaces. Substantial barriers would be about not seeing the figurative forest. But they universally get that there is a forest. They are just 100% focused on the trees.
As we said some years ago, and it turns out to have been more prophetic than we had wished, the difference between a good and a bad supply chain boils down to just good will. It turns out to be absolutely true.
So, in our sample, all multinationals have agreed on a vision of no modern slavery in supply chains. Unanimously they agree that human rights compliance does belong in workplaces. They also universally are sympathetic to the notion of not having modern slavery in their own business. And, again universally, most seem to care about the spectre of negative publicity for it being uncovered in their business (although they all found the risk of discovery remote and the expected cost the them short-lived).
For the record, of our admittedly non-random sample, 90% are public companies, 10% private companies. Several are certified B-Corps. There is an even split in our sample of business that make public statements about human rights and modern slavery, and being ethical, and those that have said nothing much.
So, with these various points of universal agreement on the vision, you might expect some traction for an offer to fully discover, map, assess, and monitor, against a comprehensive human rights framework, the working conditions in every workplace in an entire supply chain. Even just out of curiosity!
But it is not the case.
Even when it is offered very cheaply, or even free.
While of course this is not a scientific sample of the world’s big business (we would welcome such a study, though – hint, hint!), we have been able to gather empirical observed evidence, about the reasons there is next-to-no action by multinationals on human rights, and specifically modern slavery, in their supply chains:
So, where to from here:
So, where do we go when family-held companies, companies with investors, and even B-Corps, will not take up an offer to provide 100% supply chain visibility, 100% workforce visibility, guarantees of universal human rights compliance, and 100% freedom from modern slavery in their supply chain? And for reasons that have nothing to do with the vision of being rid of modern slavery?
It's a great question and, frankly, I am sure you will agree, there is really no great answer. Nothing but pure optimism for the moment.
Our empirical understanding shows up a number of what are thought to be leading models for promoting transparency in business, such as modern slavery legislation, might have a place still but are very far from being able to promote real improvements. If these laws do not promote genuine, provable, transparency much-vaunted by the proponents, then the point of the legislative approach is largely lost. The 9.5% effectiveness rate in the UK for its Modern Slavery Act does not even speak to tangible, provable results; statements are just made on honour.
Approaches to get multinationals to take modern slavery more seriously, or even human rights more broadly, are obviously a work in progress. We are clearly nowhere near ‘there yet’. The crux seems to be that leadership is lacking. A leader of a multinational willing to stand up and declare the vision and their intention to take transparency seriously, is fully lacking.
What is needed is a great business leader to stand up. It requires a multinational with the courage to stand up for human right in work-places universally, not only in the odd child-labour mine. It demands a multinational to bet on the transformative power of transparency instead of being held captive by fear of it.
But, to leave you with a few questions for yourselves, who is that champion? Where do we find them? How do we know when we have them? And will anyone follow?
All open questions, until we have a champion.
The world is waiting. But where is Godot? He should have been here by now.