How is it that we end up buying stuff made by slaves?

Few of us knowingly buy products or services made by slaves. Yet we do so every day. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates there are over 20 million human beings enslaved, bonded, trafficked or coerced into working. Our global supply chains are now so large and layered that dark places can exist where the cheaper, high quality product we want opens the door to the worst business practices human history has recorded.

These dark places are not just overseas. At the end of 2016 Australia’s national broadcaster (ABC) identified the role organised crime is playing in bringing bonded laborers from Malaysia to Australia to provide seasonal labour that picks and processes some of our seasonal fruit and veggies.

Such practices are called ‘modern slavery’ because the term cuts through the assumption that slavery was ended in the 19th Century by anti-slavery campaigns and wars. Rapid and far reaching globalisation in the last 30 years has delivered enormous economic and social benefits but it has also led to greater poverty for some. The most desperate are vulnerable to new forms of slavery.

Those who earn their living through enslaving people today are first and foremost business people. They enslave people because there is a buck to be made. When buying from these types of business people it is easier to not ask and to not know. Especially when the leader of your business hasn’t committed to sourcing responsibly and ethically.

I’ve worked for over 20 years now to understand why some business people can make decisions that harm other people’s rights and why some others choose to do nothing.

In that time I’ve been pleased to see this issue addressed by the United Nations with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. Central to the Guiding Principles is an expectation that business have a responsibility to respect human rights in its own decisions and behavior, as well as in its business relationships, and particularly in their supply chain.

I was thrilled at the end of May 2017 when over 100 procurement professionals attended a responsible sourcing conference we co-hosted with Sedex in Sydney. What pleased me wasn’t so much that the conference sold out, rather it was that there were only a hand full of business and human rights professionals in the room and the rest were procurement professionals. This to me was a signal responsible sourcing is being mainstreamed into the profession that indeed needs to own it. After all, its supply chain procurement that will ultimately deliver us goods and services without slavery. A key theme that emerged from the conference was the need for procurement professionals to be given permission from the top of their organisations to address risks such as modern slavery.

In August 2017 the Australian Government showed leadership when it announced its intention to introduce legislation that will require large businesses to report annually on their actions to address modern slavery. Having an Australian modern slavery law will give our procurement professionals a lever to gain the resources and capability they need to take the next steps.

We must not underestimate the challenges implementation of the intent of the new law will face. The procurement industry’s approach is dominated by the three factors of price, quality and time – broad-based acceptance and implementation of respect for human rights will take time.

I’ve been challenged by an Australian business person that it is better for the slaves to be earning something than nothing at all. Without shifting these types of assumptions and the implicit endorsement of the modern slavery that comes with it our new law will only achieve partial success. On the flip side I was recently taken aback when the CEO of a major global company said he had the Guiding Principles on his phone.

Slaves are present today in our business supply chains because there are still too many business leaders who aren’t prepared to ask questions and seek answers. The government’s intended law will focus those large businesses who haven’t yet considered slavery within their supply chains. But it isn’t until the overwhelming majority of business leaders give permission to their procurement people to shine a light into those dark places that we will put the modern slave runner out of business.


2 thoughts on “How is it that we end up buying stuff made by slaves?

  1. I wonder whether more open, secure, and detailed information about supply chains would help this – eg blockchain? Much of the information about where and how a product was manufactured exists in various ledgers, but how easy would it be to bring it together in a secure way?

  2. Well said, Richard. I was watching an ad yesterday for a $5 t-shirt and thinking “how that can be possible’?!!! Still a lot to do for a better world!

Add a comment