There are an estimated 21 million victims of forced labour in the world today, with labour exploitation fast becoming the dominant form – in 2015, it overtook sexual exploitation for the first time in the UK. The insidious nature of forced labour, coupled with the growing complexity of global supply chains, makes it a tough problem for corporations to identify, let alone stamp out.
“Not everyone knows how to handle human rights,” Didier Bergeret, director of social sustainability at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview. “When you narrow it down to forced labour, most companies feel that they are a bit overwhelmed by whatever they should be doing versus just spelling it out in their codes of conduct.”
This time last year, the CGF sent out a call to action to its 400 members – including retailers, manufacturers and service providers – with the launch of a Forced Labour Resolution, a commitment to cross-industry collaboration to help tackle the issue. This has since been built on with the establishment of three Priority Industry Principles; identifying three of the most problematic, yet common, employment practices across the world that can lead to cases of forced labour.
Bergeret says it is important that businesses have a common language when it comes to confronting the main forms of forced labour.
“The priority principles try to provide a new approach to the issue of forced labour,” he says. “We as a consumer-facing industry really struggle to explain the complexity of this issue to our end consumers, which holds us back from communicating about the reality and what we do against it.”
The first principle is that every worker should have freedom of movement, and that the ability of workers to move freely should not be inhibited by the employer. The second is that no worker should pay for a job – any fees and costs associated with recruitment and employment should be paid by the employer. The third is that no worker should be indebted or coerced to work, but instead work freely, be aware of the terms and conditions of their work, and be paid regularly as agreed.
When it comes to human rights due diligence, Bergeret says it can be difficult, particularly for smaller companies, to define the journey they must take in terms of supply chain risk mapping. He hopes the principles will help with this.
“This is why we did it at industry level – we looked at where the risks were for our industry at large, we surveyed multiple actors and we defined areas of shared concern. The idea is to save companies time and cost in identifying these risks.”
Bergeret says the CGF is now working on how companies can apply these principles in practice, to their operations and supply chains. Taking recruitment fees as an example, he advises a good first step for companies would be to scrutinize their human resources (HR) policies.
“As a company, if I have offices or shops pretty much everywhere in the world, I have human resources and approaches that may themselves be questionable. Self-reflect on your HR policies and make sure you find an appropriate way to go for direct recruitment if that’s the solution, and avoid indirect recruitment which could be problematic.”
Supply chain codes of conduct are another area where companies can look to integrate the principles, making sure the codes reflect them, along with other corporate standards and internal sustainability approaches. As part of a 2017 action plan, CGF will be encouraging its members to take individual actions to mainstream the principles with an initial focus in two supply chain categories – seafood, and palm oil in Southeast Asia.
Bergeret does not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. “In our industry I think it is probably more complex than in many others, given the complexity of supply chains and the varying sizes of respective companies that are involved in the value chain globally.”
Even with cross-sector collaboration, there is so only much businesses can do, especially if their supply chains operate in countries where poor labour conditions exist. Governments must also unite, and the International Labour Organization is calling on world leaders to ratify its legally binding Forced Labour Protocol, and integrate new measures to combat the crime at both national and regional level.
“For businesses to respect the UN guiding principles, human rights has to be protected by states themselves,” Bergeret says. “When it comes to the principles, if you take them from a simple business perspective, they make sense – but not as much as when you integrate them into a more holistic approach, covering what business can do with government.”
He also believes companies, particularly consumer-facing brands, need to do a better job of raising public awareness around the issue – but acknowledges that will take time and effort.
“If you make the parallel with climate change, it took years to raise awareness of the issue. Human rights is the same thing – it’s complex; not everybody believes or understands what human rights covers,” he says. “When it comes to forced labour, the new forms of it make it very difficult to grasp, because you don’t see chains anymore … you see far less violence than what people might expect.”