According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), around 21 million people are in a form of slavery today. These numbers surpass even those at the height of the original slave trade more than 200 years ago.
In response the government introduced the Modern Slavery Act in March. It requires, from October, those businesses with a turnover of £36 million or more to prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement each year, stating the steps they have taken to ensure their business and supply chains are slavery free.
This marks a watershed moment for many – but one that must be seized upon more fully than simply remaining compliant. Norman Pickavance, partner and board member at Grant Thornton and author of The Reconnected Leader, says this is an important chance for corporations to up their game –and in some cases break their somewhat circumspect silence – on ethical supply chains.
“We should expect that the execution of this legislation will be difficult if we want to move from merely compliance with the letter of the law, to enacting the spirit of the law and eradicating slavery,” he says, explaining that this “is a hugely complex multi-country, multi-industry issue that takes place at the margins and is often hard to track.”
So Pickavance advocates a ‘war on slavery’, involving, as stated in his paper Ending Modern Slavery in The Global Supply Chain, “an active alliance between business, government, research bodies, NGO’s and the press”. He also calls for the accounting profession to “not see this legislation as simply an opportunity to achieve a new stream of professional service fees”.
Jo Webb, head of stakeholder relations at not-for-profit supply chain membership organisation Sedex, is hopeful that organisations are indeed gradually taking greater ownership on ethical supply chain best practice. “Companies are increasingly seeing responsible business as a licence to operate,” she tells HR magazine. They recognise that they need to be making responsible business how they do business, not just a risk management exercise.”
Of HR’s role here, she adds that it’s “responsible for making sure that within their own organisations those processes and policies are well established. But also those best practices can actually be shared further down the supply chain with smaller suppliers who don’t have this expertise in-house.”
But Pickavance warns: “At the moment it seems that many HR directors are defining their role narrowly and have not seen how they can become connected leaders in a globalised world.
“This is disappointing – for as we see through globalisation, technology and issues like mass migration, the issues firms face today cannot be understood or tackled without seeing your organisation as part of an interconnected system,” he says.
Pickavance states HR leading on this will suit some companies, while others might want procurement to lead, say. But either way, the stakes for being proactive are high.
“Those who believe that this is too high a bar only need to consider the reputational damage that occurs when your brand is connected with shocking and unsavoury activities,” he says.
“Perhaps more importantly we have to bring this back to our fundamental views of the dignity and respect that anyone should be entitled to, whatever their relationship with our firms. If we do not champion this cause then what does it say of our basic humanity?”