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200 Years After Abolition, Slavery Still a Major Issue in Today's Supply Chains

23 August is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, a date that marks the beginning of the end for the transatlantic slave trade.

Unfortunately, this event did not mark the end of slavery altogether. Modern-day slavery in the 21st century remains widespread. The recent Thai fishing industry scandal is just one of the many recent examples.

According to the International Labour Organization, more than 20 million people around the world are victims of forced labour, the vast majority of whom are women and children; there are 11.7 million forced labourers in Asia alone. Forced labour and human trafficking is a global phenomenon, existing in every region in the world and in every type of economy, whether industrialised, developing or in transition. It can be found in both international and domestic markets, in various sectors and industries — from apparel and footwear manufacturing to agriculture, construction, electronics manufacturing and many others.

Estimates suggest that forced labour can be found in at least 122 types of goods from 58 countries worldwide, but due to the nature of today’s globalised economy it is not always immediately apparent how specific products may be linked to slavery. In developing countries, formal labour recruitment systems can be weak. Foreign workers can be recruited through informal brokers who may charge high fees, detain and abuse workers or place them in high debt bondage. These kinds of issues can be difficult as workers can be too scared to talk about them, making objective evidence to support claims of forced labour hard to come by.

Combined with this, slavery is often difficult to spot due to the complexity of modern multi-tier supply chains. Serious abuses may be occurring several tiers down the supply chain in the complex sub-contracting arrangements beyond first-tier suppliers. Sedex’s study, Going Deep: The case for multi-tier transparency, demonstrates that the second tier raises 18 percent more risk issues, and the third tier raises 27 percent more risk issues per audit than tier one, on average. It also shows that the criticality of issues is higher in the lower tiers of the supply chain.

Achieving multi-tier transparency is challenging, but possible, as evidenced by the growing number of companies joining Sedex to collaborate and gain visibility of supply chain risks beyond tier one. Brands and retailers have the power to make a tangible, positive impact in tackling modern slavery by raising awareness of the issues and taking a proactive approach to combating it within their supply chains — at every level. In the UK, the Stronger Together network provides knowledge and resources to help companies recognise — and tackle — signs of worker exploitation in the food and agriculture industries. And Unilever has opened its supply chain to Oxfam for a report investigating labour issues surrounding the company's factories in Vietnam.

As we commemorate the abolition of the historic transatlantic slave trade, brands, retailers, suppliers, governments and consumers each need to focus on the role they can play in eradicating the modern-day slavery that still exists worldwide.

This post first appeared on the Supply Management blog on August 22, 2014.


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