Social responsibility’s Blue Planet II moment is yet to come. But while we’ve certainly been missing a mass epiphany in this area, there have already been some harrowing examples: messages slipped inside garments by desperate forced labourers in China that British fast-fashion shoppers came upon for example, or, more recently, the 400 eastern European victims of a Polish gang who ensnared them in forced labour on farms, waste recycling plants and parcel sorting factories after infiltrating a recruitment company.
Still, it seems that – as Professor Brad Blitz, head of the government-sponsored British Academy research programme wrote in 2019 – “there are low levels of public awareness and engagement with the issue of modern slavery within the UK”, with 2020 having only aggravated the situation, as the pandemic upstaged most burning social issues and a shift to online retail created unprecedented demand for casual labour.
It’s difficult to say how the social aspect of sustainability came to lag so far behind the environmental. In 2015 the UK’s was the first national government to legislate a modern slavery act. As a result, companies with budgets of £36 million or more are required to make a public statement listing the actions they have taken to ensure that slavery, human trafficking and child labour are eliminated from their supply chains. In response to criticism that the legislation doesn’t have enough clout, a new enforcement body is being set up and civil penalties for non-compliance will be introduced later this year.
Moreover, the idea of ethical trade along supply chains is nothing new. The Fairtrade Foundation started in Britain in the 1990s, and consumers who brought products sporting the label were guaranteed that the premium they paid for their tea, bananas and a variety of other products would be reinvested to improve the wages and living conditions of the labourers who produced them. Meanwhile, they could also rest assured that the farmers who didn’t meet Fairtrade’s social, labour and environmental standards would be expelled from the club.
But it seems that a study in 2014, which found that wages on Fairtrade farms were often lower than on large ones not certified by the organisation, somewhat undermined consumer trust in the movement, and supermarkets increasingly exited the system to establish their own “fairtrade” labels – a string of events that customers may have found disorienting or even disillusioning.
Cascading socially responsible work practices down the supply chain is often a stumbling block for today’s global businesses too. Very often, modern slavery statements report full mapping only for the company’s tier one and tier two suppliers and tend to only partially map the rest of the supply chain until it fades into oblivion.
It’s outside the remit of the British government to police companies in foreign countries that don’t adhere to labour laws in force in the UK. All it can do is encourage companies with sprawling supply chains to “investigate their high-risk suppliers through direct engagement with that supplier’s workers.”
Human rights tech and worker voice tools
Higher legal expectations of large corporations to have a better visibility of their suppliers’ working conditions have given rise to so-called worker voice tools (WVT). Building mostly on the ubiquity of mobile phones, these apps can serve both as platforms for regular worker surveys comprising a set of pre-formulated questions, or as digital, well-targeted versions of the cry-for-help notes hidden inside jeans by forced labourers. (The messages can then trigger supply chain audits, or be checked against information gleaned from satellite imaging or AI-driven data analytics.)
Although digital technology shows great potential in filling the information gap in expansive supply chains, privacy, confidentiality and the lack of trust seem to remain issues that developers need to address.
In order to provide protection from the employer’s retaliation, for example, anonymity is key when collecting grievances directly from a suppliers’ workers. The technology to enable this is already there. The blockchain, combined with the right encryption technology and applied to WVTs, can ensure that the identity of the worker who uses it is verified but not revealed by the system.
However, there is also the human factor. Do these workers across continents and endless supply chains have the willingness and skills to take advantage of these technologies? Many of them have to become aware of the human rights these apps are designed to protect in the first place.
Research also shows that how these digital tools are presented to employees plays a seminal role in their uptake. Workers seem to trust a WVT much more if it’s geared towards their welfare and not due diligence. Also, they are much more relaxed about using them for peer-to-peer communication about working conditions than reporting grievances.
In the supply chain visibility buzz brought about by the Modern Slavery Act, a couple of worker-driven social responsibility initiatives have already been launched. The one run by Levi Strauss in Mexico in 2019, and Geneva-based NGO slavefreetrade’s widely-promoted human rights compliance platform are two examples that stand out. However, the most accessible and relevant tool currently seems to be the Voice app of RBA (Responsible Business Alliance), an industry coalition whose members have supply chains employing 3.5 million people from more than 120 countries.
RBA’s and other technologies helping to flag up slave labour more efficiently can give a major boost to supply chain transparency. But envisaging forced labourers in dismal far-off sweatshops submitting workplace abuse complaints to distant responsible-sourcing officers they haven’t ever met seems a bit of a stretch at present.
What can make it real, though, is a more articulate and consistent consumer intention to stay away from products that come from supply chains tarnished by forced and child labour – or indeed, hazardous working conditions and sub-minimum wages. If they don’t wait for a shocking labour rights disaster to stir them into action but act proactively, it could prove a much-needed catalyst for anti-slavery law compliance and the uptake of workers’ voice technology as well.
by Zita Goldman