How Confident Are You That Forced Labour Isn’t Happening In Your Supply Chain?

On one level, there is more awareness of human rights issues in the supply chain than ever before. We have the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 in the UK, which required larger commercial organisations to publish an annual statement on the topic, and far more discussion now about these issues – as at the recent SAP Ariba conference, for instance.

On another level, it’s far less clear that the situation is actually getting better, even very close to home (for those of us in the UK). It was shocking to read the other day about the case of the human trafficking gang, eventually sent to prison this month, who had exploited some 400 men and women, not in Bangladesh, Angola or Laos but in the West Midlands – on farms and in manufacturing premises around Wolverhampton, Kidderminster, and Birmingham.

The Polish Brzezinski family who led the exercise lured vulnerable people from Poland to Britain and then made them work for next to nothing, accommodated them in terrible conditions, threatened to kill them if they ran away and generally treated them appallingly. Their wages were paid directly into the traffickers’ bank accounts – the banks were deceived through this process as well as employers. Five men and three women have now been jailed for between 4 and 11 years for their part in this.

The Sunday Times reported that workers picked vegetables at Sandfields Farms, part of G’s, a multinational produce firm that supplies Waitrose, M&S, Sainsburys and most of the big supermarkets. They also made sheds and fences for Forest Garden, which supplied Homebase, Argos and other big names. The slaves also worked for construction and logistics firms, recycling companies, other farms, and obviously, all the big names contacted about this expressed their horror and said they had no idea what was going on.

But did no-one notice that the bosses were driving around in Bentleys, and wonder how they could do that on the margin that a legitimate employment agency would make on minimum-wage level workers? Or talk to the workers and realise that something was wrong?

It’s easy to be critical, and for the major supermarkets, this is a couple of tiers down their supply chains – is it realistic to expect them to care about staff working for a supplier to a supplier?  But these are the same firms who make a big deal of their CSR policies and practices, so it’s not unreasonable to hold them to account in cases like this.

So the question for procurement leaders is this. How confident are you that trafficked workers, forced labour or human rights abuses aren’t happening in your supply chain? Clearly, we can never have 100% certainly, but think about where there might be vulnerabilities, which markets or suppliers might be higher risk, and consider what more you could be doing.

Much of it as usual comes back to really understanding your supply base and supply chain. Who suppliers are, who owns them, runs them, how they work … and getting out and about to see what is happening on the ground has always been an important element of good procurement. Walking around factories, or farms, talking to people, watching what is going on is an important part of our role, I’d argue, even in these digital, networked, cyber-everything days.

And if you want to look further at these issues, there is a lot of material and information available now to help – this is a Home Office video which is worth watching.

Anti-slavery International is the oldest international human rights organisation in the world, and we’ve written before about Electronics Watch, which has been well supported by parts of the UK public sector procurement community. And you can also download this paper written last year by Peter Smith with SAP Ariba which looks at wider “procurement with purpose” issues.

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