Ethical Trade and Human Rights—Transforming global supply chains

David Schilling

Sr. Program Director - Human Rights

For two days in late October, a serious discussion took place in London organized by the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) about where we are, what we’ve learned and where we need to go to improve worker rights and working conditions in global supply chains.  It was a rich multi-stakeholder dialogue with companies (brands and suppliers), trade unions, NGOs, investors, community-based organizations and government officials identifying key challenges and opportunities to transform supply chains.

No surprise that there was a decisive consensus that auditing alone has not brought the changes in performance we seek.  No surprise that the difficulty of achieving scale on some of the good practices being piloted was identified as a major issue to be addressed. 

On the plenary panel (“How can business address modern slavery?”) I described some of ICCR’s lessons learned over the past two decades of corporate supply chain engagements where too much emphasis has been placed on a) addressing labor conditions in the ‘first tier’ supplier relationship (which of course is an important place to start) and not deeper in its supply chain; b) assessing workplace conditions at the factory or farm level and not focusing on how workers get to the factory or farm in the first place; c) supporting ethical sourcing without scrutinizing purchasing practices of the buying side of the company; and d) implementing a top-down approach that doesn’t recognize the role of empowered workers and communities driving change from the bottom-up as well. 

One participant challenged the conference attendees: “We know what works and what doesn’t.  There is a wealth of good practice, but it is not connected to the purchasing side of the business.  We have too few leaders and too many laggards.” 

Thankfully, this reality is changing--driven by media and NGO reports of egregious cases of modern slavery in many sectors including the agriculture, construction, electronics, and seafood sectors; by heightened requirements on corporate reporting, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 (where the ETI played an important role to get the supply chain transparency requirements into the bill); and by the newly-released regulations requiring U.S. Government contractors to put in place compliance plans focused on ethical recruitment to address modern slavery in extended supply chains, well beyond the primary relationship with ‘first tier’ suppliers.

Company representatives attending the conference were well aware of these drivers and a number are collaborating with trade unions, NGOs and departments of governments to mitigate and manage the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains—the risk to workers and the attendant risk to companies.  More needs to be done, especially to counter the illegal $150 billion modern slavery enterprise and make sure that workers made vulnerable by economic, political or cultural systems, never have to pay fees to obtain employment.  Gatherings like the ETI conference help to identify partners and best practice strategies that can make a difference in reducing and ultimately eradicating the mechanisms that enslave.


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