Slavery in Global Supply Chains: The Role of BAM in Finding Solutions

by James McHaffie

Modern slavery has been a major and growing issue for some time. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 21m people globally are victims of forced labour, generating $150 billion in illegal profits annually. Of this, there are 10.7 million victims of labour exploitation in private enterprise, reaching US$43.4 billion in illegal profits per year.

Modern slavery is a broad term that encompasses slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour and human trafficking. These are all issues which need no introduction to most BAM companies – many of which are businesses employing workers who have been victims of, or who are at risk of modern slavery.

Growing public awareness of the issues and new legislation in a number of countries has pushed this on the agenda for companies. For example, in 2015 the UK Modern Slavery Act became a legal requirement for at least 17,000 companies in the UK and, consequently, around the world. Companies with an annual turnover of £36m or more, with operations in the UK, have to produce an annual statement outlining steps they have taken to address the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains and within their own business. 

Recent research from Hult International Business School and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) exploring emerging corporate approaches to addressing modern slavery in supply chains, found that 71 percent of companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some point within their supply chains – particularly in high-risk countries or sectors and at the lower stages of the chain.

The complexity and demands of supply chains, together with the often hidden nature of modern slavery, makes it difficult to identify and address. Understanding how to respond to modern slavery has become a pressing issue for senior business leaders and supply chain managers across the globe. So what is the role of BAM companies in supporting a response?

BAM companies have an incredible opportunity to provide solutions to companies and at-risk workers alike – through providing services to global supply chains, considering their own purchasing practices, and through developing new business models to provide new work opportunities for people.

Large brands and retailers will increasingly require their suppliers to have an ethical sourcing policy and practices in place to check their suppliers and sub-contractors are doing all they can to ensure modern slavery is not taking place. BAM companies which already have standards and practices that go beyond what these purchasing companies require, and which can articulate positive impacts for workers, are well placed to find new opportunities in these global supply chains.

BAM companies often have greater transparency and accountability in their employment or supply chain practices because of their founding purpose and values – in many cases that core purpose is to directly address modern slavery through business. So the challenge is not to put new practices in place, but rather to articulate and communicate the impact that is being made in the language of global purchasers.

If you want to know where else to look in your own purchasing practices, start by mapping out sourcing countries and different types of materials, manufacturing processes, or where there is a high use of temporary or contract labour. Then look at your practices, policies and relationships with your suppliers.

Are your standards and requirements for suppliers around worker rights and labour standards clear? Is there a clear pathway for issues to be raised and dealt with if they are found? Do any of your purchasing practices place unnecessary pressure on suppliers? Consider who in your own team, or of your suppliers could benefit from specific training on what modern slavery is, how to identify it, and what to do if any issues are found.

Ultimately, addressing the risk of modern slavery in a business is about addressing the risks of people being exploited or abused in their work. Businesses, when they are at their best, provide a quality of life for everyone connected to them – for staff, customers, suppliers and the wider community. This is what BAM businesses do well, and we need new and innovative business models that enable scalable, sustainable work opportunities for those most at-risk of modern slavery.

 Join us for our Summer Series on The BAM Review Blog, summer 2016. We’ve asked BAM leaders and practitioners to write about topics they are passionate about for a series of one-off blogs throughout the summer.

 James founded his business to work with companies, academic institutions and the public sector to improve working conditions in supply chains and to address the challenges of modern slavery. He also leads research into the role of leadership and ‘what good looks like’ in ethical supply chains in partnership with a leading global business school.