Forced labour and the supply chain

Are you sitting comfortably? You probably shouldn’t, according to Aidan McQuade, the Director of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights group: You’re probably wearing clothes manufactured by forced labour or using cotton grown using forced labour.

That was his stark opening remark to a Centre for the Study of International Slavery event this week, where Aidan spoke alongside University of Liverpool researcher Glynn Rankin, as part of the International Festival of Business 2014. The seminar on ‘Forced Labour and the Supply Chain’ saw the pair urging business to audit their own supply chains and lobby for legislation to create a level playing field. Their audience came from a range of businesses, including a local ethical start-up, a major supermarket, one of the world’s largest banks and an investment management company.

There is growing concern about following the Guardian’s recent investigation into slavery in the Thai prawn fishing industry, which supplies many of Britain’s top supermarkets. Only this week, a woman in Northern Ireland reported finding a SOS note for help alongside a worker’s ID card in the pocket of a garment she bought in 2009. McQuade argued that most ethical audits of UK supply chains are designed to see no evil and hear no evil, and this incident at Primark – if verified – would be further proof of that.

Glynn Rankin, who as a founder member of the UK Human Trafficking Agency, charged the first human trafficking case for labour exploitation in the UK, opened proceedings by urging attendees to consider the various different ways that forced labour contributed towards both business and daily life. Drawing on research at the University of Liverpool on exploitation in hotels and the agricultural industry, Rankin stressed the importance of business taking responsibility through ensuring that recruitment and agency worker policies included provisions for dealing with exploitation.

Aidan McQuade emphasized the truly global nature of the forced labour problem. Citing examples from Bangladesh, Thailand and Qatar, McQuade made clear that a commitment to tackling exploitation cannot end at Britain’s borders. He also had strong words of caution against the new Modern Slavery bill, arguing it could do much more to tackle the problem of forced labour in supply chains.

Attendees discussed how best to move forward in the issues of corporate social responsibility raised by forced labour within supply chains. The event, organised with the support of Business Gateway, allowed Glynn Rankin to share the findings of an EU-funded research project he has undertaken alongside Dr. Alex Balch on ‘Facilitating corporate social responsibility’.

CSIS Co-Director Richard Huzzey said, “This was a fantastic opportunity to bring businesses into conversation with the world’s leading anti-slavery NGO and our University of Liverpool experts. British guilt and complicity in slavery and forced labour did not end with the emancipation of West-Indian slaves in 1833, It is crucial that our research centre can raise awareness that there is slavery – not just horsemeat – in our supply chain.”

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