Norman Pickavance of Grant Thornton argues that companies need to join forces with society and use big data to eradicate this scourge

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act is a significant step towards ending human exploitation. The legislation is the first of its kind in Europe, bringing a single focus to ending slavery and trafficking, enabling companies to play a leading role in eradicating slavery from their global supply chains. However I believe optimism about the end of slavery may be misplaced.

Modern slavery is a hugely complex, highly dispersed and very lucrative activity. It has successfully infiltrated the third and fourth tiers of outsourced global supply chains. Working at the margins, unscrupulous businesses and serious organised crime have been able to extract a great deal of value simply by exploiting lives. Against this networked model of supply, I believe that individual corporate action using conventional compliance-based approaches, dealing primarily with the letter of the law, will struggle to have impact. If we want to end slavery we need to rethink our approach.

These days we pick up a packet of fresh prawns without thinking much where they came from. They are healthy, cheap and always available. Nevertheless, their low price comes at a high cost. The world’s largest prawn producer is the Thai-based CP Foods, a £20bn business that brands itself as the “kitchen of the world”. It supplies all the big supermarkets, including Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and the Co-op.

Its operations highlight why the issue of modern slavery is complex. CP Foods does not have slavery directly occurring in its own workplace. It wouldn’t be so blatant. Yet to operate efficiently, it relies on fishmeal from boats trawling international waters – boats often manned by slaves.

The Guardian spent six months tracing how this modern slave supply chain worked, discovering how Burmese and Cambodian migrants paid “brokers” to smuggle them into Thailand for a better life.

The traffickers bring these invisible migrant workers over the border, where they are “bought” by trawler captains who keep them on board their vessels, often in chains, frequently working for up to 18 months at a time. Thai government figures reveal that there are 300,000 people employed in the prawn industry, mostly migrants – often slaves in a part of the supply chain the world would prefer not to see.

There are 300,000 people employed in the prawn industry in Thailand
Image Credit: Warakon Buaphnean

This is not an isolated example. Materials used in car seats have been shown to be sourced from the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, harvested by people in bonded labour. The cocoa industry receives beans from Ivory Coast, often harvested by children trafficked into the industry, held against their will and kept unpaid. Examples like this are almost countless.

The pure economics of slavery mean the incentives for business and organised crime, either passively or actively, are huge. With an abundant supply of people desperate to find a way out of poverty, the price of a slave has dropped from the equivalent of $40,000 in 1830 to $90 today. Passing legislation and having good policies in our corporations, no matter how difficult their implementation, is really the easy bit. Today’s governments, businesses and civic leaders will need to treat legislation as only a beginning. If we want to end slavery we need to rethink our approach.

Ivory Coast cocoa is often harvested by children trafficked into the industry
Image Credit: No borders- Braydon

Here are three steps that, together, could take the anti-slavery approach to a different level:

1. Declare war on slavery Businesses need to show commitment not only to the letter of the law but also to its spirit. Such shared commitment would see leaders in business, government, and NGOs signing a declaration that jointly declares a “war on slavery”.This would help to gain wider public support, galvanising and educating others to provide a deeper understanding of the challenges. It will be particularly important if actions against slavery take a long time to bear fruit and if cutting out slavery raises prices in the UK.

2. A pre-competitive alliance This shared commitment must go further than the rhetoric. The war on slavery needs to be fought by an active alliance between business, government, research bodies, NGOs and the press. Such an alliance would need to share a long-term commitment to invest, collaborate and report on their actions towards the eradication of slavery in their supply chains.  This should be done collectively and voluntarily, sharing insights and innovative best practice.

Whilst some groupings already exist, we can go further. An example of such cross-industry and government collaboration can be seen in the approach taken to waste reduction within the food, clothing and electronics industries. Here, loose alliances developed into a tightly focused and funded body called WRAP, which was set up to drive a "resource revolution".  WRAP acts as a point of public commitment and an action-focus for le ading names in UK retail and manufacturing. In a pre-competitive way, it has a proven track record and has stood the test of time. Such an alliance in the war on slavery could be co-ordinated by leading organisations under the stewardship of leading business NGOs and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland.

3. Use big data The power of networks is largely dependent on the richness of shared information. This war on slavery will be fought with algorithms, not gun-boats. By combining all information on suspected slave traders and traffickers into a single open-access data warehouse, each engaged company, NGO, or government body can use sophisticated analytics to provide an unprecedentedly rich picture of how the trade works and how to end it.

It would enable the alliance to fight the slavery networks with their own information, providing a much more efficient and cost-effective way to target resources and identify slave traders, putting them out of business. To make this happen, it is recommended that the leading accountancy practices, business and NGOs join forces to create a shared information platform on modern slavery activity, supported by the government and law enforcement authorities.

The potential financial gain of organisations operating at the margins of global supply chains mean that human exploitation is considered by some to be fair game. It is unpalatable to think that UK companies and the British public are benefiting from this trade through higher margins and lower prices, but that is the truth of the matter.

The 2015 legislation is a unique opportunity to create a new way of doing business in which the humanity and dignity of every person is made central to our thinking and actions. The accounting profession has an important role to play by not seeing this legislation as simply an opportunity to achieve a new stream of professional service fees for conducting more risk and assurance work. The bigger opportunity requires a move beyond a compliance mind-set, to contribute to the common good, actively working to create and support an alliance of partners in a cross-industry approach.

Putting an end to modern slavery will need more commitment from business and civic society leaders. It is a moral as much as a practical issue. And we can only win this fight if we work together.

Norman Pickavance

Norman Pickavance is partner for brand, innovation and sustainability at Grant Thornton

Main Image Credit: Gong To
Human rights  modern slavery  supply chains 

comments powered by Disqus