by Adam Woodhall — For many of us in the UK, we think that slavery is something that was taken care of by Wilberforce and others in the 19th Century. However, it is not only something that affects global supply chains, but is still alive and kicking in 21st century United Kingdom.
In 1833, the British Parliament passed an Act abolishing slavery in the Empire, and in 2015 the same institution passed the Modern Slavery Act. This month, sustainability professionals gathered two miles from the House of Commons at The Crowd event to consider the state of slavery in their organisations and wider society.
The event was opened by video from Norman Pickavance of Grant Thornton who highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities that we face in dealing with this emotive issue. Holding a bargain he'd just picked up in Oxford Street, Pickavance observed that it didn't include a label stating "may contain traces of modern slavery". Whilst such a statement might feel shocking, the statistics suggest that it is accurate, with a study finding that 71% of organisations estimating that slavery affects their supply chain with an estimated 46 million victims of forced labour worldwide. This was supported by the keynote speaker, Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund, who stated “modern slavery touches all consumers in one way or another”.
Pickavance suggested three lessons that could be learned from the efforts of Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists, and these provide a good structure to detail what was discussed at The Crowd.
Lesson 1: ‘Business must find its voice’
Josiah Wedgewood, who famously industrialised the process of manufacturing pottery, was also highlighted by Pickavance as creating the "Am I Not a Man And a Brother?" anti-slavery medallion, which went viral in the late 18th century. By standing shoulder to shoulder on The Crowd stage, the 21st century businesses of John Lewis and Ikea, represented on the panel by Benet Northcote and Simon Henzell-Thomas respectively, demonstrated that business was finding it's voice.
It was observed by the crowd that 10, or even two years ago, such high profile organisations might not have stepped into the spotlight to be questioned as they were. However, as Henzell-Thomas observed: "We have got to admit we haven't got it cracked". He continued that in the short term, there might only be a few that are willing to stand up and take the hits. It is critical that these few, like Wilberforce and Wedgewood before them take a strong stand and publicly make statements such as Hanzell-Thomas's that the "moral argument is unquestionable, there is also no business case for slavery". Furthermore, as the urbane moderator, Axel Threfall, pressed the panel; is this all big talk, or big action?
Lesson 2: ‘We must go beyond compliance’
In answer to Threfall’s prompting, the panel were of the strong opinion that the Modern Slavery Act is a great starting point for action, with Northcote suggesting that it gives the opportunity for NGOs to put pressure on those not doing enough. The final panellist, Natacha Dimitrejevic of Hermes Investments Management, noted “The slavery and human rights agenda is moving up our priorities, but this is only the beginning”. This is in part because, as Henzell-Thomas commented, “The challenge is that some slavery is legal”.
In the 19th century the British state used gunships to enforce abolition of slavery. In the 21st century two weapons at our disposal are data and information. While, as Grono observed, the data often doesn’t exist, there are now organisations who are starting to deal with this challenge. On the Digitalisation round table, skilfully chaired by the Chair of The Crowd, Oonagh Harpur, we were asked to share examples of platforms that can deal with the lack of data. Two excellent opportunities were highlighted. Provenance is a platform using the blockchain where information is shared using “unmutable ledger” and Labor Voices is an early warning system based on direct feedback from workers, by repeatedly polling workers through their mobile phones.
Lesson 3: ‘We must work together’
Coming onto the third lesson, Pickavance advocated businesses coming together with competitors, law enforcement agencies and NGOs to ensure this data is shared, as only then is it powerful. This is because, as Grono observed, “even for well-meaning corporates, it’s hard to get past tier one suppliers, never mind tier two or beyond”. The answer is not to just de-list the culpable factories, because as Northcote noted, “Brands can't solve this issue in ways that put slaves at risk”, so therefore “collaboration is the key to solving modern slavery”. Finally, as Paul Gerrard observed from the floor during the Q&A, we must remember forced labour is still happening here, with an estimated 12,000 in the UK.
The gathered crowd left this event sobered at the challenge of modern slavery, but motivated to take action in their organisations.
If you suspect there is slavery happening near you in the UK, visit modernslavery.co.uk for further info on how to handle this.