Leadership by the world’s richest companies is crucial to ending slave-like conditions in supply chains, argues Phil Bloomer of the Business and Human Rights Resources Centre. But as a report published today finds, progress by most FTSE 100 companies has been disappointing
Last week, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, called FTSE 100 chiefs in to talk about modern slavery. The size of these companies means it is highly likely that they face slavery risks somewhere along their complex supply chains; whether it’s children picking cocoa beans in West Africa for a food retailer, or trafficked cleaners forced to work exhausting hours in a London bank. These leading businesses also have the resources and leverage – especially if they work together – to make a real difference to the scourge of slavery across the globe.
Everyday products that we pick up without a second thought are often produced in the most dire conditions. Like the chicken farm workers at DJ Houghton Chicken Catching Services who were denied sleep and toilet breaks while forced to work long shifts, producing eggs for some of Britain's best-known brands, including McDonald’s, Tesco and Asda. The gangmasters responsible for the plight of these workers were eventually sued and the workers compensated, but this is just one story among many. On our high streets, from nail bars to car washes, restaurant kitchens to private homes, vulnerable people are being exploited in broad daylight. And globally, recent estimates suggest 16 million people are employed by businesses under slave-like conditions.
The UK government recognised the need for change when it brought in the UK Modern Slavery Act. The Act requires all businesses that operate in the UK with turnover of over £36 million, to make a public statement on what they are doing to eliminate modern slavery from their operations and supply chains. The idea is to it make it easier for everyone to scrutinise companies’ behaviour and demand better action. The reporting requirement is also intended to drive a race to the top amongst companies. The Modern Slavery Registry, compiled by our organisation, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, collects these statements in one place so that anyone can view and compare them.
Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Unilever are among a handful of FTSE 100 firms that have taken meaningful steps on modern slavery
So, how are the FTSE 100 doing? Our new report, published today, shows that a handful of leaders like Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Unilever have taken meaningful steps to assess whether the people who provide their services and manufacture their products are at risk for exploitation. These actions are detailed in the statements they published under the Act. These leaders demonstrate what is both commercially viable, as well as a moral imperative.
Overall, though, the action being reported by the majority of companies is disappointing. At the end of the first year, laggard companies have done little or nothing to address the risks in their supply chains. The worst performers – like Hargreaves Lansdown, Paddy Power Betfair, Pearson, WorldPay and Randgold Resources Limited – appear to have missed the point altogether, choosing only to produce brief statements with little evidence of action; or, in Randgold’s case, no statement at all.
Hargreaves Lansdown, Paddy Power Betfair, Pearson, WorldPay and Randgold Resources are among the worst performers
Leadership from the biggest companies is crucial if we are to end modern slavery. Complacency from such influential players is what creates the conditions under which modern slavery can thrive. There are between 9,000 and 11,000 companies, big and small, due to report under the Act and they will look to their peers in the FTSE 100 to set an example. This leadership needs to come right from the top, with senior executives and boards prioritising the elimination of exploitation, and ensuring their departments and staff have the relevant skills and resources to do this.
Governments and investors are watching. Legislation similar to the UK Act has been introduced in France and the Netherlands, and Australia is set to enact legislation next year. Investors increasingly know what kind of action they want to see from companies, thanks to groups like CORE Coalition, Ethical Trading Initiative and us, who follow and collect best practice.
Leadership from the biggest companies is crucial, but their performance overall has been disappointing
At their meeting last week, Amber Rudd called on the FTSE 100 chiefs to “collaborate and share best practice”. Experience shows this is key to company success in liberating those in forced labour. Companies also need to collaborate with workers’ organisations in their supply chains; they usually know much more about where abuse of workers is occurring and why. As some of the richest companies on the world, the FTSE 100 have the opportunity to lead the charge to end modern slavery, we just need more of them to do it.
Phil Bloomer is executive director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. He will be speaking today at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Supply Chain summit.