Experts And Business Leaders Meet To Tackle Modern-Day Slavery


It’s been almost a year since 1,200 people died when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza disaster brought the issue of global supply chains to the world’s attention, but there is still no consensus on the best way to drive exploitation out of supply chains.

On Friday, business leaders and NGOs from around the world will meet to debate this issue at the global supply chains summit organized by The Guardian and the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

John Ruggie, the former U.N. special representative for business and human rights, is the author of a set of principles on corporate governance that have been deeply influential on the discussion around supply chains, and will give the opening speech.

One of the key areas of debate at the conference will be whether voluntary compliance or legislation is the best way to bring about “clean” supply chains free of forced labor, and exploitation. NGOs such as Anti-Slavery International have long pushed for tighter laws on corporate responsibility in this area. Their argument was boosted in the U.K. by the recent joint committee response to the government’s modern slavery bill. MPs and peers are calling for the creation of several new offenses, including legislation on supply chains that would ensure firms could “no longer turn a blind eye to exploitation occurring in their names.”

For those who want to see legal rather than voluntary compliance, however, there has not been enough of a move in the right direction.

Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, believes voluntary schemes will never be as effective as legislation: “There are a few interesting voluntary initiatives going on but you don’t see systematic involvement from business and that’s because it’s not regulated,” he said.

“There is no consequence for a business in the U.K. if it is sourcing, as most garment retailers are, from forced labor of girls and young women, or Thai fisheries that are using forced labour of migrant workers to keep us supplied with prawns. You are not held accountable as you would be if you were involved in bribery overseas.

“Voluntary schemes don’t work. Unless there is solid international regulation on this no business will stick their head above the parapet because they will be at a competitive disadvantage. We need to move to new approaches … there are a lot of countries where forced labor is underpinned by the law, for example, in the UAE with the Kafala system.”

Despite the disagreements over how to tackle trafficking and slavery in global supply chains, one area where everyone agrees is the need to share information on what works.

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