Who Picked Your Cotton?

Here’s a thought; There is almost an undoubtedle chancethat something you have used today is madefrom the hands of modern-day slaves.  Commonly used materials such as cocoa, cotton, gold, and silver,  all have strong ties to modern slavery, and very little is being doneabout it. A quarterof Mica, a mineral used in make-up, is mined by an estimated 20,000 children in Northeast India. The International Labour Organization estimates that over one million children work in mines to supply jewellers like Pandora, Goldsmiths, Cartier, among many others. Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, uses state orchestrated systems of forced labour as a means of production. Marks and Spenser, Mothercare, and Tesco have come under fire for selling clothes made in factories where women work twelve to sixteen hours a day in prison-likeconditions. Conditions have been reported to be so bad that a young womanwas murderedwhile trying to escape the factory.

Image Courtesy of Carsten ten Brink via Flickr © 2015, some rights reserved

We never question where the things that we buy and use on an everyday basis come from, and we shouldn’t have to.The fact that we consume goods created as a direct result of forced labour doesn’t reflect our moral shortcomings, but the failure of governments to allow companies to do so.  While the UK haspassed the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015, it is still not enough.  As it currently stands, The Act requires ‘commercial organisations’ with a turnover of more than £36 million pounds annually to report on modern slavery in their supply chains. Currently,an estimated 12,000-17,000firms must partake in this obligation. More specially, corporations under the jurisdiction of the act must‘prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year of the organisation’, that is, ‘a statement of the steps the organisation has taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place … in any of its supply chains, and … in any part of its own business.’Also, the Act suggests that while not legally required, that non-UK subsidiaryalso produce a statement themselves, to keep in good practice, and keep their brand in a good public image. However, as much as the plan intends to do good, some majors loopholes couldpotentially allow companies to maintain their supply chains, regardless of the risk slavery poses to it. For example, in regards to the statementrequirement, critics have argued that companies can simplyissue a declaration expressing that the company ‘has taken no such steps.’ The government heavily relies on the hope that the risks of negative publicity or pressure from shareholders and investors will prompt companies to begin mending their supply chains. However, there is no guarantee that companies will. Considering that 71%of firms believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some pointin their supply chain, it is likely that with such a high number of firms facing this issue, the public will overlook the many firms that refuse to repair theirsupply chains. Also, while a company might be willing to address the problem of slaveryin the supply chain, doing so is easier said than done. Researchconducted in Partnership with the Ethical Trading Initiativeinterviewed UK companies that have a high reputation forethical trade or have apublic commitmentto tackle modern slavery.  Of these companies, 93% agreed that they have a responsibility to do all they can to address Modern Day Slavery. However, only 40% of these companieshad a clearremediation plan in place. A clear example of the fact that companies face barriers is that 42%of the companies interviewed citedthe length and complexity of their supply chains as one of the major barriers, and 51% saying they lacked the resources to conduct ‘due diligence’ and support supplier initiativesto improve workplace conditions. One of the major barriers companies face is how to best work with suppliers to improve these conditions, while putting in place red-line barriers. All of the interviewed companies stated that withdrawing from a supplier was the last resort, as they wished to protect workers from greater abuse and exploitation.

It appears clear then that most leading companies wish to act morally, but have trouble doing so; though that isn’t to say that progress has not been made. Ofthe interviewed companies, 73%  have worked with Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI’s) such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, to collaborate with suppliers, and 50% are working more with MSI’s since the Acts passing.An important fact to note, however, is that 79% of companies cited Senior Leadership as the driving force behind their response to combating modern slavery. Therefore, although a tentative mechanism, campaigning NGO’s, and the media may be successful at pushing major ,well-known companies into acting if they threaten to name and shame the companies’ leadership into doing so. However, as the Act stands to restrict the actions of some 17,000 companies, it is unlikely that it will be possible for the media and NGO’s to shame the lesser known majority of these companies into acting due to a simplelack of resources. Clearly, the UK government needs to take stronger steps in addressing the problem of modern-day slavery in supply chains.

The legislation currently in place, while strongly worded,is weak in its ability to curve the actions of employers, and heavily relies on the moral character of a company. The government must introduce a mechanism that requires companies to ensure slavery-free supply chains by 2020, by issuing majorfines and criminal offences to companies that fail to investigate and fully address anyissues they find in their suppliers. Britain has outlawed slavery since 1833, but almost 200 years later, companies are still profiting from the blood, sweat, and tears of people who live against their will in cruel and hazardous conditions. If Britain is to represent liberty and democracy, it must godue toall it can to stop funding slaveryand punish those who do otherwise. The strictest measures must be introducedin a revised Modern Slavery Act, and anything short is an affrontto democracyand our moral standards as a nation.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Leonard J Matthews via Flickr © 2010, some rights reserve

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