Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

This Isn’t the Time to Go Wobbly on Slavery

The U.K. government has made a good start on its war on slavery. But it needs to get serious.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

When they found him on Songkhla Pier in Southern Thailand, Vuthy hadn't seen dry land in over 18 months. A former monk from Cambodia, he had been tricked and sold by a Thai employment broker to a fishing boat captain for around $740. Kept in chains, without free access to food, he had been forced to work on the boat for up to 22 hours a day, under threat of violence. "I thought I was going to die," Vuthy said in an interview with the Guardian. "They sold us like animals, but we are not animals. We are human beings." Yet this man was part of a supply chain that that brought cheap shrimps to Americans and Britons who, presumably, would never countenance modern slavery.

Slavery was supposedly abolished in most of the world hundreds of years ago. Yet it's likely that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before. The Walk Free Foundation's Global Slavery Index estimates there are 29.8 million people living all over the world today in some form of modern slavery, which it defines as "possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, transfer, or disposal." This 29.8 million figure, calculated from a combination of international public records and random sample surveys, would amount to more than double the total number of people trafficked out of Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery has even overtaken some of the modern world's most lucrative industries in profitability. The latest report from the United Nation's International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor generated around $150 billion in 2012. Two thirds of the estimated total (or $99 billion) came from commercial sexual exploitation, while another 51 billion came from "forced economic exploitation," which includes agricultural work and domestic servitude. This $150 billion figure would amount to three times the revenue of Google ($50 billion) and significantly higher even than the profits of "Big Oil" ($120 billion) and the U.S. banking industry ($141.3 billion) in the same year. Second only to the Asia-Pacific region, it is in developed Western economies like the United States and the European Union where the most money is made from forced labor, the ILO report claimed.

When they found him on Songkhla Pier in Southern Thailand, Vuthy hadn’t seen dry land in over 18 months. A former monk from Cambodia, he had been tricked and sold by a Thai employment broker to a fishing boat captain for around $740. Kept in chains, without free access to food, he had been forced to work on the boat for up to 22 hours a day, under threat of violence. "I thought I was going to die," Vuthy said in an interview with the Guardian. "They sold us like animals, but we are not animals. We are human beings." Yet this man was part of a supply chain that that brought cheap shrimps to Americans and Britons who, presumably, would never countenance modern slavery.

Slavery was supposedly abolished in most of the world hundreds of years ago. Yet it’s likely that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before. The Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index estimates there are 29.8 million people living all over the world today in some form of modern slavery, which it defines as "possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, transfer, or disposal." This 29.8 million figure, calculated from a combination of international public records and random sample surveys, would amount to more than double the total number of people trafficked out of Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade.

Slavery has even overtaken some of the modern world’s most lucrative industries in profitability. The latest report from the United Nation’s International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor generated around $150 billion in 2012. Two thirds of the estimated total (or $99 billion) came from commercial sexual exploitation, while another 51 billion came from "forced economic exploitation," which includes agricultural work and domestic servitude. This $150 billion figure would amount to three times the revenue of Google ($50 billion) and significantly higher even than the profits of "Big Oil" ($120 billion) and the U.S. banking industry ($141.3 billion) in the same year. Second only to the Asia-Pacific region, it is in developed Western economies like the United States and the European Union where the most money is made from forced labor, the ILO report claimed.

So there was good reason to celebrate last year when the U.K. government announced that it was launching a new Modern Slavery Bill in response to the slave trade boom. "I believe this is the first time any government has brought together, in a single act, its legislative measures to counter this growing evil," Home Secretary Theresa May declared. Few would have disagreed with her that slavery is "evil," but the question of how best to "counter" it proved divisive. When the draft bill was eventually published it included a highly controversial omission. The Home Office concluded that the Modern Slavery Bill would not legislate against the use of slavery in company supply chains, because the auditing process would be an "additional burden" on U.K. business, which the government would prefer to avoid.

To accompany the legislation, the government launched a high-profile media campaign under the tagline "slavery is closer than you think." The campaign drew the public’s attention toward examples of forced labor identified on British soil and away from the international networks of exploitation that brought food and clothing into the country. Yet the scale of the problems could hardly be more disparate. The Global Slavery Index estimates that, after only Ireland and Iceland, the United Kingdom is home to the lowest prevalence of slavery in the world. Around 4,426 people were thought to be living as slaves in Britain in 2013. Yet, the United Kingdom continues to rely on cheap food and clothing from countries like Thailand and Bangladesh, home to an estimated 472,811 and 343,192 slaves respectively.

In June of this year, the Guardian‘s investigation into the Thai shrimp industry revealed that the world’s largest shrimp supplier, Thailand-based CP Foods, bought fishmeal from boats manned with slaves like Vuthy to feed shrimps destined for Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, and Tesco. Consumers were still coming to terms with the Bangladeshi factory disaster of the previous year. The Rana Plaza factory complex, which supplied garments to Western clothing retailers including Benetton, Matalan, Primark, and Walmart, had shown signs of structural failure after extra floors were added to increase productivity. Despite complaints from employees, production continued to meet the increased demand. When the eight-story factory eventually collapsed, more than 1,100 factory workers died and more than 2,515 were injured.

It is hard not to suppose economic factors are at play in the government’s decision to focus exclusively on homegrown slavery. Replacing Britain’s 4,426 slaves with a fully registered tax-paying workforce would be economically advantageous for the government. Identifying and eradicating all those too-good-to-be-true deals on resources and manufacturing across the world would be costly. Perhaps for this reason, surveys published in July this year by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply revealed that business leaders and consumers in Britain had long relied on a strict "don’t ask don’t tell" pact with regard to international supply chains. Almost three quarters (72 percent) of British supply chain professionals said they had no visibility of their supply chains beyond the second tier. More than one in ten (11 percent) of U.K. business leaders said it was "likely" modern slavery was already playing a part in their supply chain.

British civil society has proven itself to be as responsive as ever. On the day the draft bill was published, a coalition of 15 leading anti-slavery organizations issued a briefing paper calling for the insertion of a clause to ensure businesses made public their efforts to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains. Soon after, a joint parliamentary committee assembled by the government to scrutinize the bill published statements from U.K. business leaders who argued that supply chain legislation would "level the playing field" and ensure that companies taking action against supply chain slavery would not be undercut by ignorant or unscrupulous competitors. 82 percent of Britons polled last year said they would support a law requiring large companies in the United Kingdom to audit and report on slavery in their supply chains.

Working models are already in place. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, did his bit to terminate supply chain slavery with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010. Since 2012, companies doing business in California, with annual worldwide gross receipts of more than $100 million, have been required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. Luis CdeBaca, the U.S. Ambassador in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, has since observed a corporate culture change in California, claiming that certain companies have exceeded their reporting requirements and all were keen to demonstrate progress over time.

Apple, a notoriously opaque company, whose China-based supplier Foxconn dragged its reputation through the mud after series of workforce suicides in 2010, has since come under pressure from the Californian legislation to offer up unprecedented levels of transparency. Following 288 total audits, Apple unveiled the names of 156 companies, representing 97 percent of its international supply chain. Finding that only 38 percent of its suppliers adhered to its maximum working week of 60 hours, Apple vowed to tackle labor abuses wherever they occurred in its supply chain. "If everyone is on a level playing field because of the new regulation," said Jon Sohn, a DC lawyer advising companies on California’s supply chain legislation, "what we can do is to separate ourselves and begin to raise the bar even further."

The U.K. Minister for Modern Slavery and Organized Crime, Karen Bradley, responded to the escalating criticism of the government’s Modern Slavery Bill late last month. In a "factsheet" issued by the Home Office, she argued that a specific clause relating to supply chain transparency was unnecessary because a European Union directive, set to come into force in 2016, may have the same effect. "Given the forthcoming EU corporate reporting directive," Bradley explained, "we do not see a need for the U.K. to copy the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act." In the early 19th century, Britain led a global abolitionist movement by the force of its example. In the 21st, apparently, the U.K. prefers to let America take the lead (and perhaps wait for the European Union to twist its arm).

Granted, the first abolitionist movement ultimately succeeded in making slavery constitutionally illegal everywhere in the world. Yet, many "emerging markets" still lack the institutional capacity to fully enforce the rule of law. Such countries are seldom in a position to bargain with powerful multinational corporations offering economic integration with the West in return for a better deal on resources or manufacturing. And yet, although the population of the world has never been larger, the world itself has never been smaller. 200 years ago, absentee slave-owners could pile up profits comfortably in the imperial capital, willfully distanced from the cruelty on which their wealth depended. Today, as the Guardian‘s shrimp-fishing exposé shows, the damning spotlight of the global media can bring business leaders face-to-face with the murkiest depths of their supply chains at any time — and they will find the 21st century public much less forgiving.

If Britain wants to reclaim its role as a world leader in abolitionism, it has a long way to go. Condemning slavery is easy, rooting it out at home will be harder, but the real challenge would be to face up to the inhumanity carried out on the U.K.’s behalf all over the world.

Michael Pollitt is a research intern at the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum and Culture of Prosperity Program.

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