Supporting supply chains in tackling modern slavery and forced labour

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), at any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were in modern slavery and one in four victims were children.

During ISEAL’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference earlier this year, we were reminded of the challenges workers face and where standards can play a role in identifying and helping to eliminate forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

Modern slavery is endemic with a strong gender bias. Of the 40.3 million victims of modern slavery, 24.9 million were in forced labour, including domestic workers, farm workers and those in the construction, fishing and sex industry. Of those, 71% of people affected by modern slavery were women and girls.

The ILO has recognised that ending modern slavery requires a multifaceted response from a range of actors. There are a multitude of economic, social, cultural and legal aspects that contribute to these issues – such complex challenges require an array of solutions.

A growing number of voluntary and regulatory frameworks have emerged since 2011 following the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In response, we have seen companies issuing public commitments about human rights in their supply chains. And, the issue remains at the top of the agenda for ISEAL and its members.

Innovation and learning

At the decent work conference session more than 60 experts gathered to identify and discuss approaches that the ISEAL community should invest in.

Elizabeth Bystrom from GoodWeave explained how her organisation uses a holistic approach to work across the issue through its five pillars. These include harnessing the power of the market, cleaning up the supply chain, the creation of educational opportunities, improving conditions for all workers and encouraging replication of the system. Bystrom described how, for GoodWeave, detection is supported by their proximity to producers, with intensive mapping and use of a ChainPoint-based transparency tool to map the entire supply chain.

ISEAL’s innovations fund is supporting a project that aims to identify new methods of detecting farms where the risk of forced labour is high. Jessica Chalmers, of Sustainable Agriculture Network, who works on the project with Rainforest Alliance and Ergon Associates, explained how their goal is to identify better mechanisms that get information from the field, which helps detect the risks of forced labour.

Chalmers went on to highlight some learning from leveraging networks across Kenya, Guatemala and India. One emerging insight she discussed with the group was the finding that we are either working with the best performers or we’re not doing the job of detection well enough.

She described how through the project they want to be able to understand at a higher level the common approaches that can deliver information back to companies – noting that organisations that are geographically and bureaucratically different need to be able to deliver data back from the field. Referring to GoodWeave’s work, she remarked how GoodWeave is managing this through their experience and good presence, allowing them to identify forced labour indicators.

Protecting workers

Marcel Gomes from Repórter Brasil described their experiences of mapping supply chains to increase transparency. He explained the difficulties Repórter Brasil faced in getting information on supply chains in Brazil and reinforced the importance of a greater dialogue with organisations. However, Bystrom stressed that information in this context is something that needs to be handled very carefully to ensure that workers remain protected and are not left at risk. GoodWeave addresses this, for example, through a coding system to protect identities.

John Brookes of Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) introduced the group to the IRIS project; a collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). IRIS is a social compliance scheme designed to promote ethical international recruitment and the IRIS Standard is based on international human rights instruments and labour standards. Ultimately, the project looks at how we address some of the root causes of forced labour and some of the risk factors. Brookes said that IRIS will help identify risks in the supply chain, however, much more needs to be done in scaling up awareness.  

Working together to drive improvement

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provided an underlying theme for the discussion, in particular, SDG 8, target 8.7, which calls for effective measures to end forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. Standards systems recognise they need to do more and there’s a clear call for improvements, shared learning and collaboration.

The group acknowledged that auditors hold far more information that standards have not yet accessed: it was felt that standards need to learn the full breadth of information that the technical and audit community are gathering.

In addition, through local stakeholder engagement standards can do more to learn about the drivers of forced labour and how it manifests itself. This clearly leads to a requirement for standards and auditors to be present in the field for longer.

Through partnerships and collaborations we are already opening up opportunities to learn from each other and across sectors. And, through new technologies more information can be assimilated to provide better information to identify risks. However, we must remain mindful of the sensitivities of such work in this area and the need to maintain the trust and guarantee the safety of the workers.