Ten years ago, I moved to the Middle East as a co-founder of FSI Worldwide. Although I am no longer a director of the company and no longer live in the region, our mission was and remains, to try to improve the conditions under which migrant workers are recruited and employed. We had no brilliant plan, other than to set up an ethical recruitment company that would provide Asian and African migrant workers with the same protections as you or I would expect in an employment situation. Along the way, we learnt a lot about the systems and people who facilitate what we now call ‘modern slavery’. We also managed to help thousands of people move from circumstances of exploitation and into decent, protected work, for which my colleague and friend Tristan Forster received the UN Business Leaders Award in 2013.
To mark this ten-year anniversary, I am publishing ten short lessons that I have learnt. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list or an in-depth analysis, more of a conversation starter. We are all learning in this space and the more we can collaborate and help each other find meaningful and sustainable solutions to the exploitation of the vulnerable, the better it will be for us all.
So, here goes (comments welcome, thanks for stopping by…)
- Despite its ease of use and ubiquity, the term ‘modern slavery’ can be problematic. It closes as many conversations as it opens and it carries post-colonial baggage that is often deeply unhelpful. We all need to be careful about the language we use and not fall into the trap described by Teju Cole as the ‘white savior industrial complex’.
- For all the much heralded legal and political progress that we have seen in the last 10 years, most of it is tinkering at the margins of the problem. There are many powerful vested interests in government and industry in labour source, transit, destination and contracting countries. Many of these interests are deeply resistant to genuine change.
- With several notable and honourable exceptions, most companies don’t care enough about labour abuses in their supply chains. Sure, they would prefer they weren’t there, but they are unwilling or unable to commit the resources meaningfully to confront them.
- Far too often western activists, governments and commercial organsiations view the problem through a western lens and / or as a discrete criminal justice issue. If we are to take serious strides forward, we need to better understand the ecosystems of corruption, poor governance and exploitation that characterize many parts of national and international supply chains.
- Modern slavery is not one problem, it is a set of many interconnected, dynamic and evolving problems, each of which has its own set of challenges. We need to understand the characteristics of these various phenomena much better and understand which strategies are succeeding and failing in confronting them. Understanding failure is at least as important as understanding success.
- Yes, the problem is systemic and sometimes appears overwhelming, but there is plenty that we can do. Don't let the size of the issues overwhelm you, focus on a small area you can change and work out from there.
- The UK Modern Slavery Act has helped to elevate the issue up the political agenda and has been useful in redefining the narrative. However, if we are to be serious about tackling modern slavery, the law needs to be seriously strengthened. I have been calling for a generalized ‘failure to prevent’ offence for years (along the lines of s.7 Bribery Act), this should now be a legislative priority…
- However, as there is no prospect of such legislative progress any time soon, it is up to enterprising professionals to fill the gap. Lawyers can and should use the law of negligence to bring vicarious corporate accountability cases on Chandler v Cape grounds. Tech companies should develop more effective supply chain transparency tools and all of us, as consumers, should pay much greater regard to ethical supply chain compliance.
- We desperately need better and louder corporate leadership on this issue. Those of us working for change need to preach what we practice and collaborate. Let's get over our fear of competitive disadvantage and share information about good practice.
- International organisations (ILO, IOM, UN etc.) often produce great reports, but their recommendations go unenforced. We need to create a much more robust international framework for acceptable working practices to prevent a race to the bottom on worker welfare. Set the agenda and demand clear and measurable action from national governments.
If we work together, we can find innovative and sustainable solutions to labour and environmental challenges, but to get there we need to be rigorously analytical and realistic about where we want to be 10 years from now.
Article written by James Sinclair, Consultant at Clarkslegal LLP