Tackling modern slavery in global supply chains

By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

This article was original published on the OECD Insights blog on March 11, 2016.

The recent migrant crisis paired with shocking exposes of labour issues in global supply chains has heightened public attention to modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking. Children working in cobalt mines for the Apple and Samsung supply chains, Syrian refugees working under terrible circumstances for garment supply chains in Turkey, Rohingya refuges working as slaves in the Thai fishing industry and North African migrants working in agriculture in Italy and Spain.

The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are victims of forced labour, of which 44% are migrants. In total, forced labor generates an estimated $150 billion in illegal profits every year. A recent ETI survey found 71% of companies suspect the presence of modern slavery in their supply chains.

In response, a number of binding regulations regarding modern slavery in supply chains have been introduced. On an international level, the ILO has adopted the Forced Labor Protocol that requires States to take measures regarding forced labor. Domestically, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 is intended to ensure consumers are provided with information about the efforts to prevent and eradicate human trafficking and slavery from their supply chains. President Obama also launched a far reaching executive order to avoid human trafficking in federal contracts and passed a law allowing for stronger enforcement of the Tariff Act of 1930, which aims to block the import of products to the US produced using child labour.

Currently two lawsuits related to slave labour in supply chains of Thai shrimp are pending against well-known multinationals in US federal courts. Likewise earlier this year the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal for the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that three large multinational enterprises aided and abetted child slave labor on cocoa plantations in Africa.

The recent UK Modern Slavery Act applies to all companies that do any part of their business in the UK if they have annual gross worldwide revenues of £36 million or more each year. These companies have to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are referenced in the statutory guidance of the Act, noting that “whilst not specifically focused on modern slavery, they provide principles and standards for responsible business conduct in areas such as employment and industrial relations and human rights which may help organisations when seeking to respond to or prevent modern slavery.’’

The OECD Guidelines are recommendations to companies backed by 46 adhering governments and recommend that companies carry out supply chain due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for all adverse impacts that they cover, including child labour and forced labour. The OECD has developed more detailed guidance on how these expectations can be responded to in specific sectors. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, the global standard on mineral supply chain responsibility, provides a 5 step framework for due diligence to manage risks in the minerals supply chain including forced and child labour in the context of artisanal mining. The FAO and OECD recently jointly developed a Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains which also provides due diligence recommendations to manage risks related to forced labour and child labour in high risk agriculture sectors including palm oil and cocoa. Such approaches could be applied in the Thai shrimping industry as well. The OECD is also developing a Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Garment and Footwear Supply Chains, which provides specific recommendations for addressing risks of forced and child labor. This Guidance will be launched later this year and will be relevant to migrant workers in textiles factories and cotton fields.

Although the OECD Guidelines are a non-binding mechanism they are accompanied by a unique grievance mechanism, the National Contact Points (NCPs). NCPs in the 46 countries that adhere to the Guidelines facilitate dialogue and mediation with companies who allegedly do not observe their recommendations. Several issues regarding forced or child labor in supply chains have been brought to the NCP mechanism and some have resulted in successful outcomes.

For example, in 2011 complaints were submitted to the NCP mechanism regarding sourcing of cotton from Uzbekistan cultivated using child labour. NCP mediation led to several agreements with companies involved in sourcing the products as well as heightened industry attention to this issue. In a follow up to the NCP processes several years later the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) concluded that the submission of the cases had encouraged traders to take steps to pressure the Uzbek government to end forced labour, although company commitment and media attention around the issue diminished over time. Nevertheless the report also noted that the NCP cases triggered investment banks to monitor forced labour issues in Uzbekistan in the context of their investments.

Other NCP cases, while not resulting in agreements between the parties have led to statements determining that certain companies were not observing the recommendations of the OECD Guidelines in the context of forced labour impacts, resulting in reputational harm to those enterprises (e.g. see DEVCOT) . Currently the Swiss National Contact Point is overseeing mediation between the Building and Wood Worker’s International (WWI) and FIFA regarding forced labor issues in Qatar. The results will have important implications for global sporting events and for managing risks of forced labour in large scale infrastructure projects.

Companies themselves have been proactive in addressing these issues. For example Nestlé, despite currently being subject to a lawsuit related to slave labour in its supply chain, participated in and released a report developed with the non-profit organization Verité which identified labour abuses in its supply chain with regard to Thai-sourced seafood.  Within the report the company outlined plans to tackle the problem, and notes that other companies that do business in this sector likely face the same risks.

Several MNEs also participate in the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force set up in 2014 by retailers such as Costco. This brings together manufacturers, retailers, governments and CSOs to conduct independent audits on Asian fishing vessels to ensure seafood supply chains are free from illegal and forced labour. The first round of audits is expected to be complete by July 2016.

In February this year, H&M asked all of its suppliers to sign an agreement prohibiting the use of cotton from Turkmenistan and Syria, on pain of termination in order to avoid sourcing of cotton from ISIS controlled territories, produced through forced labour. H&M also terminated a sourcing relationship with a Turkish supplier after discovering a Syrian migrant child working in its factory, responding to documented abuses against Syrian refugees in the Turkish textile industry.

Labour issues in global supply chains present a serious and pressing problem, therefore it is encouraging to see they are being taken seriously. In addition to regulatory approaches non-binding mechanisms such as the OECD Guidelines, accompanied by the NCP system, and industry initiatives have resulted in important progress and provide alternative models for managing forced labour risks throughout global supply chains. While litigating these issues can be a forceful tactic in bringing companies to account, non-judicial grievance mechanisms can provide a more affordable and more accessible platform for tackling forced labour issues.

In the context of modern slavery, all stakeholders must step up their efforts. Governments should promote due diligence in global supply chains among their companies as outlined in the OECD Guidelines and its related industry-specific instruments. Civil society can continue to be instrumental in reporting upon and exposing these issues and furthermore should rely on the NCP platform for reaching resolutions on supply chain issues with MNEs. Finally, as the current migrant crisis will last many years, companies should conduct heightened due diligence to ensure that they are not linked to forced labour throughout their supply chains, particularly in contexts with large migrant populations.

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