Two hundred years ago Britain led the global abolitionist movement by example. Today, however, the UK would rather wait for Europe to twist its arm.

In a ‘factsheet’ issued by the Home Office on the 29th of August this year, the Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, Karen Bradley, announced that the UK’s Modern Slavery Bill, the first of its kind in Europe, would not include legislation against the use of slavery in company supply chains, because an EU directive, set to come into force in 2016, may have a similar effect.

“Given the forthcoming EU corporate reporting directive,” Bradley argued “we do not see a need for the UK to copy the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act,” according to which retailers and manufacturers doing business in California, with annual worldwide gross receipts of more than 100 million dollars, are required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains.

The news will be seen as yet another setback among the new British abolitionist movement, whose efforts have centred largely on the division of responsibility between the Government and the private sector, ever since the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the 2012-13 session.

Although slavery is now constitutionally illegal everywhere in the world, many emerging markets and developing countries still lack the institutional capacity to fully enforce the rule of law. The responsibility to ensure working conditions are safe and ethical therefore rests with the multi-national corporations providing the jobs. Without a statutory footing, however, this responsibility has traditionally been interpreted in the loosest possible sense.

The 2010 investigations into slavery and child labour on West African cocoa farms severely damaged the reputations of Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé and Cadbury. Yet as the demand for chocolate in newly developed and populous economies, like China and India, increased so did the demand for cheap cocoa. It was hardly surprising, therefore, when evidence emerged from the International Cocoa Initiative earlier this year that over 300,000 children are still at work in the cocoa industries of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, the word’s first and second largest cocoa suppliers respectively.

This summer’s exposés of the Thai prawn-fishing industry revealed a picture of slavery, in the most traditional sense of the word, at the bottom of seafood supply chains that led directly to Western supermarket giants Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco. Migrant workers were sold for a little as £250 by Thai employment brokers and exchanged between the captains of prawn-fishing boats, working out at sea for years at a time without pay. Reports have since emerged that around 50% of Thai seafood workers have seen other employees murdered in front of them. Suicide was also not uncommon.

As if the horsemeat scandal of 2012 and the campylobacter scare of 2014 were not evidence enough that the global financial crisis had severely shortened supply chain visibility in Britain, the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply revealed earlier this year that almost three quarters (72%) of British supply chain professionals had no visibility of their supply chains beyond the second tier.

The Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013, shook the British consumer conscience further. The factory, which supplied garments to Monsoon Accessorize, Primark and Matalan, had shown signs of structural failure after extra floors were added to meet increased demand. When the eight-storey building eventually collapsed, more than 1,100 factory workers died and more than twice as many were injured. At least two of the factories in the building had passed ‘social compliance audits’ which had failed to identify or address the dangerous working conditions.

More than one in ten (11%) of British business leaders polled through YouGov admitted that it was ‘likely’ modern slavery was playing a part in their supply chain. So although, when it comes to international supply chain slavery, Britain is undeniably part of the problem, it would rather wait to be part of Europe’s solution than set an example for the rest of the world, the way that California has. After the horsemeat scandal of 2012, the Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013 and the Thai prawn-fishing exposé of 2014, Britain has averaged one supply chain crisis per year in the last three years. What next year’s calamity will be, while we wait for Europe to twist our arm in 2016, is anybody’s guess, but everybody’s responsibility.

Michael Pollitt works as a research intern on the Transitions Forum and The Culture of Prosperity programme at the Legatum Institute. He tweets @MJPollitt

ethical supply chains  modern slavery  organised crime  slavery 

The Sustainable Supply Chain Summit 2014

November 2014, London

Get answers to the latest issues and initiatives affecting your supply chain. Back for the 9th year, The Responsible Supply Chain Summit is the world's leading meeting place for senior executives looking to put sustainability at the heart of their supply chains

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