Modern Slavery and Procurement Obligations – Dr Olga Martin-Ortega at LUPC/SUPC Event

Another of the strong sessions at the recent London Universities and Southern Universities Purchasing Consortia joint conference was “Managing Human Rights Risks in the Supply Chain: Responsibilities Under the Modern Slavery Act”. The speaker, a real expert on the topic, was Dr Olga Martin-Ortega, Reader in Public International Law at the University of Greenwich in London

She explained that human rights violations are enabled by the nature of the supply chain, and occur where there are governance and regulation gaps. Global supply chains are increasingly buyer-driven – it is often the brands at the end of the supply chain that hold power. There has been much more outsourcing over the past 20 years, so often the big brands don't make anything themselves, and rely on supply chains, often spread around may countries.

The volatility of consumer demand is another issue. The rapid response needed to address peaks of demand means that suppliers have to be flexible, which can make workers vulnerable to exploitation. Governance and regulation is often weak. Either there is deficient regulation in host countries, or “limited extra-territoriality in home countries” – so even if the UK has obligations, how far can we protect human rights aboard? But the Modern Slavery Act has opened the possibility for better human rights protection.

In terms of the scale of violations, the estimates suggest that some 45.8 million people are subjected to modern slavery in 67 countries in 2016 (says the Global Slavery Index). There are around 21 million victims of human trafficking and some 168 million child labourers.  Some of the data suggests the problem is not always what we might intuitively perceive. For example, only 20% of forced labour is international; 56% of those who suffer are exploited where they live, and 15% elsewhere in their home country.

The violations differentiated

The accepted classification of human rights violations is as follows:

- Slavery and servitude
- Forced or compulsory labour (e.g. documents removed, or debt tying you to a job)
- Child labour
- Trafficking
- Human smuggling and migration (may start voluntarily, then turns into forced)

Industries that are particularly susceptible include electronics, construction, food, cleaning and security work. Whilst any buyers should take an interest in what is going on within their supply chains, international obligations have now shifted attention somewhat from corporations to public buyers.

The UN Guiding Principles contain a state duty to promote and protect human rights and this includes public procurement, a sector that can have a major impact on the issues given the huge amount of money that is spent by government organisations. The aim of campaigners is to allow human rights related matters to be reflected in the procurement process. In Europe, that particularly applies to larger OJEU advertised procurements.

Your responsibilities under the Modern Slavery Act (MSA)

Section 54, which deals with modern slavery in the supply chain, applies to around the 12,000 largest companies in the UK, which means those with turnover above some 336 million. Public contracting authorities will be expected to ask for assurance that potential suppliers are adhering to the MSA.

Organisations will be expected to publish a statement on MSA. That has formal requirements:

  • Needs to be approved at highest level.
  • Published visibly on the website
  • Structured and drafted in a clear and comprehensive way

And also has substantive requirements

  • Shows organisational structure
  • What are your vision, priorities and policies?
  • What you purchase
  • Main risks
  • Due diligence processes in place and their effectiveness
  • Plans for the future

What does this all mean, for buyers in the public and private sector?  We need to map and understand our supply chain - what we buy, where it comes from, who makes it. We should ask suppliers to disclose this, assessing the risks of slavery, forced labour or trafficking. A system to systemise and keep information up to date will be needed.

As Martin-Ortega said – we should ask “what is my role in the global supply chain? How much leverage do I have and how can I use it more effectively”?  A good message to finish on for today.

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First Voice

  1. Rosario Ortega Ruiz:

    Excelent !!!

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