Work with suppliers to fight slavery, urges charity

Companies who suspect labour abuse in their supply chain should work proactively with suppliers to eliminate it rather than pull out of business immediately, according to anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice.

They should also look out for warning signs of supply chain slavery closer to home as well as abroad, said Sir Peter Fahy, the charity’s director of structural reform. 

Buyers often get spooked when they become suspicious that slavery is present in their supply chain and leave suppliers immediately, he told SM.

But removing their business from areas in which they suspect labour abuse may be taking place will not help the situation in the long run, he said.

“It’s an understandable reaction,” he said. “They fear for their reputation and don’t want to take a chance.”

But buyers should “be proactive,” he added. “Work with all the suppliers to say ‘here is the standard that we expect,’ in terms of the employment of children, the rights of staff and working conditions.”

“What won’t help is companies from the developed world just removing their business from companies in the developing world. It's more about trying to help those suppliers raise those standards.”

Supply chain slavery, though most prevalent in developing countries, is still a major issue in the UK, and businesses should look out for warning signs close to home as well as abroad, he continued.

“While there are clearly a lot of issues in India, Africa and developing countries, there are definitely the same issues in our own country.” 

Fahy, former chief constable for Greater Manchester Police, said: “There are, sadly, sweatshop factories that are employing slave labour, and people who are taking advantage of others who have difficulties in their lives like learning difficulties, alcoholism and drug addiction, and often keeping them in conditions of imprisonment and forced labour. We have to be aware that a lot of this is going on in our own country, in our own cities.”

But a key development in charity work, he said, was a move to tackle the problem from the top down by helping businesses eliminate the issue. 

Help for Justice's most recent initiate, the Slave Free Alliance, aims to do this by encouraging companies to sign their commitment to fighting the issue in return for data and advice on how best to go about it.

“A lot of work has been done trying to support victims, but the focus is now on working with businesses, helping them audit supply chains and to create good standards,” he said.

“It's complex to audit supply chains, and more complex still to know what to do when you find a problem. But it's important to make sure that the action you take doesn't just drive it further underground.” 

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