Fabienne Lesbros and Paul Gerrard – working hard to highlight injustice. © Peter Spinney
Fabienne Lesbros and Paul Gerrard – working hard to highlight injustice. © Peter Spinney

How the Co-op is fighting modern slavery

9 June 2017

Co-op’s policy and campaigns director Paul Gerrard and CPO Fabienne Lesbros are leading the way in the fight against slavery in supply chains

On Deansgate in Manchester there is, surprisingly, a statue of Abraham Lincoln. An inscription explains it’s dedicated to “the support that the working people of Manchester gave in their fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War”.

During this time a blockade of the southern states prevented raw cotton from making its way to Lancashire, a shortage that caused mass unemployment, destitution and even starvation. But rather than complain, the men and women of Manchester – demonstrating resilience that they continue to display – wrote to Lincoln telling him they supported his fight to end slavery. 

For Paul Gerrard, group policy and campaigns director at the Co-op, and Fabienne Lesbros, its chief procurement officer, this statue is a constant reminder of why fighting slavery must remain top of mind. Because, Gerrard explains, the public meeting that led to “the working men and women of Manchester writing to Lincoln telling him to carry on, even though we are dying, because slavery is wrong”, was organised – and the subsequent letter written – by one of the Co-operative’s founders.

Ending slavery continues to be a priority for the Co-op. Its first modern slavery statement, recently published, is a 10-page document detailing its ethical policies, supplier approval process and how it carried out 444 audits in 2016. CIPS praised it for setting a standard in policy development in this area and sending an important message to suppliers.

“When people think of slavery they think of it as being a long time ago or a long way away, in South East Asia,” Gerrard explains. “But the reality is that in the UK the National Crime Agency estimates upwards of 10,000 people are living in some form of modern slavery.” 

The top three countries those victims come from are Vietnam, Albania and the UK – it’s not only people being trafficked into the country who are at risk. “Any company that says the risk of modern slavery is not there in its supply chain is either awfully brave – or awfully foolish,” he adds.

Team effort

Gerrard and Lesbros are fairly recent additions to the Co-op’s senior team. Lesbros joined in September 2015 (she was CPO at soft drinks company Britvic) and Gerrard in March 2016 (having spent his career in government, fighting organised crime at HM Customs and Excise and later running tax credits and child benefits at HMRC). They have to work together seamlessly.

“We are joined at the hip,” Lesbros jokes. “This is a huge organisation [Co-op employs almost  70,000 people across the group, which covers food to funerals] and we have a lot of colleagues to talk to. Paul’s in the public domain; for me it’s about embedding it in the supply chain and making sure our colleagues exhibit the right behaviours when they buy something.”

“We have values and principles going back to 1884,” Gerrard adds. “If you’re going to be a co-operative business, that means putting those values and principles into how you run your business. I am ensuring those values are clear and drive the business, and Fabienne makes sure that actually happens, with how we procure our products and services.”

The food business is an obvious place to start, as Co-op indirectly employs around half a million people globally. The organisation’s ethical trading monitoring programme for food covers 1,773 sites across 69 countries and six continents.

Warning signs

Lesbros lists several examples of programmes Co-op’s procurement team has been involved with via the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). These include the Better Strawberries Group, which seeks to improve working conditions for Moroccan women, and work in the Italian tomato sector to understand ethical issues at grower level. Italy and Morocco are two of the Co-op’s eight ‘focus countries’: Spain, Egypt, South Africa, Thailand, Kenya and the UK.

Much of the work is on training suppliers to recognise the warning signs of modern slavery, Lesbros explains, encouraging them to push this good practice throughout their own supply chains and creating a positive domino effect. Procurement also collaborates with local NGOs, auditors and experts.

“It’s about being aware,” she explains. “Don’t take things for granted, especially in geographies that are far away from home. You can’t be there 365 days a year, so what guarantees do you have? It’s about giving suppliers the right training and capability to assess and correct, to get them on the journey with us.” She uses the example of children as young as five working in some economies as it might be the only way for them to survive. “How do you make sure the response from suppliers isn’t acceptance but trying to correct the situation?”

Gerrard also advocates an old adage: “If someone is offering you something that’s too good to be true, there’s a reason for that: it’s too good to be true. People use modern slavery because it cuts costs.”

But Lesbros warns that these cost savings are often not passed onto the buyer. “They might charge you an average cost, but actually they’re making far more profit and no one sees it. That’s why it’s so difficult to put your finger on it,” she says.

Tackling the issue

Gerrard advises using free tools from campaigning organisations like Stronger Together to produce your own frameworks and checklists for suppliers. Co-op will be embedding forced labour indicators, from responsible sourcing data expert Sedex, into reporting and risk assessment processes for its own-brand suppliers.

So far, more than 90% of these suppliers have attended modern-day slavery training in the food business, Lesbros says, adding that over the past five years the food business has delivered about 100 supplier training events over the eight focus countries, reaching about 3,000 delegates in over 1,000 sites. That, she calculates, means a staggering 21,000 hours of supplier training. “That is where we are leading. We are pioneers and we want to continue being pioneers.”

“If you understand your supply chain, then you intervene,” Gerrard adds. “You don’t just write a bit of paper. You go out there and train.”

The aim is to extend this to the whole of the supply base, looking at areas like goods not for resale, about which the Co-op has created a panel with Sedex – and its retail competitors – to explore.

“It doesn’t make business sense [not to collaborate with other businesses on issues like this],” Lesbros says.

Gerrard agrees: “The UK can be proud of having a small number of businesses which look to solve this on a sustainable, collaborative basis.”

This collaborative approach extends to working closely with suppliers even when bad practice is discovered. The Co-op’s modern slavery statement reveals that of 2,223 issues raised, 16 breached its code on forced labour. But both Gerrard and Lesbros are adamant that the worst thing to do in situations like this would be to “cut and run”. “The easy thing from a reputation perspective is to say you found [bad practice] and distance yourself from the company,” Gerrard says. “The worst thing you can do is pull out. I guarantee you the people who suffer most will be the slaves. Collaboration is critical. There will be points where there is risk. When you find it you’ve got to do something about it: work with people, don’t just walk away.”

“The problem is not going to go away just because you [as a client] decide to leave,” Lesbros agrees. “Somebody else will just replace us on the contract.” Both advocate transparency in reporting how you are dealing with any bad practice, to ameliorate any reputational risk.

It starts here and now

Procurement, both believe, has a critical role to play in this agenda and should be leading rather than following. “If we can get our procurement right then that will drive the right behaviours throughout our supply chain,” Gerrard says.

Lesbros adds: “Procurement sees the overall picture. We deal with so many stakeholders internally and have the overall picture of what the supplier base looks like externally. It’s about being able to impact. That’s why [this agenda] has to be procurement-led, with policy being an advocate.” And with most businesses having now completed their first modern slavery statements, now is the time, she believes, for procurement to seize this opportunity to influence both inside and outside the business.

“The ethical business agenda has changed dramatically in the last 10 years,” she adds. “The moral compass has moved.” This means procurement has a role to play internally re-educating people on ethical decision-making. “Sometimes internal stakeholders are not aware of the process, because we do it on their behalf,” she says, on the need for training beyond the procurement team.

More widely, Lesbros believes commerciality, ethics and sustainability should go hand in hand. “It’s always about planet, profit, people,” she says. “If you’re not in profit, you can’t have an impact on people or the planet. But commerciality has to encompass that agenda, because if you don’t understand micro-economics, your environment, the issues your client base is facing and how you can help, you don’t understand what you’re buying.”

Compared to other business models, such an approach may be an easier sell at the Co-op. The organisation, which has been through some highly public challenging times, is, in Lesbros’ words, “an icon”. “It has a different dynamic from a FTSE-listed company. Everything we do is for our members [the Co-op is member-owned and has more than 4.3m members] and our communities.”

“If a co-op is about anything, it’s about people coming together and helping each other,” Gerrard adds. “Our different business model allows us to be more long-term in our decisions.”

To help this, the Co-op has recently introduced an ethical decision-making tool that guides colleagues through four simple questions: what do our members think? What is the commercial and social value of the decision? What is the impact on community? How would we explain this to our members?

“If you start asking the questions and getting the data that supports the answers, that allows you to make a decision that is commercially, ethically and sustainably right,” Gerrard explains. “We’re using that tool right from the board to the day-to-day decisions procurement make.”

Next steps include business-wide training on ethical sourcing and modern slavery to all Co-op staff who deal with suppliers, and establishing a procurement academy to standardise good practice across the group. “Most procurement professionals [think about preventing modern slavery] every day,” Lesbros says. “The challenge is making it more prominent in the business.”

There are also plans to increase the number of former victims of slavery given jobs at the organisation, via its Bright Futures programme (see below). “There are some companies doing great things, and others paying no more than lip service,” Gerrard believes. “Being able to say people are not exploited in our supply chain should be a given. This is about doing more.”


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Last year almost 4,000 people were rescued from conditions of slavery in the UK, but it’s what comes afterwards that matters just as much, says Gerrard. “Unless they can become part of a community or get a job, they will end up being enslaved again,” he explains. “They will go back to ‘the only person who looked after me’.”

The Co-op’s Bright Futures programme tackles this. It is giving 30 survivors a four-week work placement within the food business, with the opportunity to turn this into a full-time job. It collaborates with specialist charities City Hearts and Snowdrop Project. Suppliers including Tulip, Greencore and 2Sisters have also signed up to support the scheme, pledging to provide employment opportunities to victims.

Five people have gone through the programme so far, with four still working at the Co-op (the fifth has gone onto paid employment elsewhere).

Gerrard would like other businesses to follow suit, and encourages any interested organisations to get in touch.

“I spent 10 years tackling organised crime, and the thing about organised crime is the product used to make money is a commodity,” he says. “You use it up and replace it.

“The commodity here is a human being, and they are often re-trafficked and re-enslaved. So it’s just not enough to say, ‘We’ve got our processes in place and are procuring in the right way.’ This is about going beyond compliance. We are an employer and employment changes lives for people.”

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