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Many of us are complicit in modern slavery, and don’t know it

I have worked with buyers on the issue of modern slavery in supply chains for much of the last decade. Modern slavery is a very real issue. Globally, it is estimated that some 40m people are enslaved or subject to forced labour conditions. Many, many more work in deeply exploitative conditions. I have looked into issues in the textiles, fishing, cocoa, tea and coffee sectors to name a few. Some companies are taking the resolution of these issues more seriously than others.

At a micro-level, in Ireland, modern slavery typically presents as human trafficking, child abduction or sex slavery and this is present in every EU country. Last year, the Irish Times reported that over 60 cases of modern slavery were identified in Ireland. This is likely to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While this is deeply regrettable and a stain on Irish society, the bigger modern slavery risk lies far away, buried in global supply chains. Everyday items consumers buy without a second thought are at risk of or actually tainted by modern slavery. This matters. The ritual exploitation of other human beings to fulfil western demands is something we acquiesce to. Out of sight, out of mind.


Lack of supply chain transparency

Sectors like technology and healthcare frequently depend upon the brutal exploitation of others. A chain of documentation is used to obfuscate this fact.  Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Forbes, the FT and the BBC, reported in December 2019 that Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Tesla, Dell and Microsoft were being sued in relation to the deaths of children engaged in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). You can find lots of worthy material on Apple or Google’s corporate news wires around social issues in the west. You will not find much on practices independent reports have linked them to in the DRC or China. Cobalt, mined by children as young a 6 years of age for $1.50 a day, is used in the lithium batteries that power many of their products.

Phrases like “never knowingly purchased” are liberally used by the largest purchasers of products with known provenance issues. COVID-19 presents critical ethical risks for states responding to the crisis. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply reported in March 2020 that:

Electronics, workwear, building materials and personal protective equipment were goods with a high risk of modern slavery; and Cleaning, security and catering services are danger areas especially if they are outsourced.


Modern slavery and the fight against COVID-19

One of the very few countries currently taking these risks seriously is the United States of America. A Congressional Executive Committee in the United States has recently stated that it will seek extra proofs and assurances that goods produced in the Xinjiang region of China (home to persecuted Uyghur muslims and other Turkic peoples) are not a result of forced labour practices. This follows a report in Australia in February 2020 which found 27 plants in 9 Chinese provinces using forced Uyghur labour to produce for major Western companies (the full report is available here). The report identifies over 80 household brand names.

Is it tenable, that companies with famed reputations for precision engineering and quality control should be so consistently bereft of knowledge of their supply chains?

PPE, electronics and cleaning in particular are areas of extremely high global demand at present. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply specifically cites these sectors as ones with the highest risk of modern slavery practices. The uncomfortable question however is whether, like all the brands people like to criticise (Nike, Adidas, Puma etc), governments will simply play dumb with respect to supply chain standards. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, there is a very high risk that that will be the case. Under procurement law in the EU, it is mandatory to ensure International Labour Organisation rules are being observed. The vetting of this compliance is often cursory at best.


Concrete steps to avoid exposure to modern slavery practices

The efforts to save lives in wealthy western states rely on troubling practices elsewhere. The evidence available shows this. These practices include modern slavery, forced labour and child labour. There is a need for much greater transparency in the auditing of firms with export licenses and the conditions of trade for high risk goods. Values, especially human rights, which were once a cornerstone requirement of free trade, need to become central to trade again. This is especially the case on state contracts.

The WTO system is based on free trade for everything except arms. However, labour is being used as a weapon in some states. European countries are turning a blind eye to brutal labour practices in Africa and in Asia. This is especially the case in China. As a result, we need to look at the consequences of what is happening. States like Ireland must become more demanding of the companies that use these supply chains.

The paper trail procurement officialdom relies upon is often little more than a flag of convenience. Typically paper trails exist with conformance certificates and/or legal assurances that these buyers rely upon. This isn’t good enough. It is almost certain that states across the EU are buying products being used to fight COVID-19 from companies using forced labour. Sadly, the increase in demand for items like PPE and ventilators only makes this likelihood greater.

The question we must all ask ourselves is whether we are happy to live with these bitter truths. There are better ways to source while upholding universal human rights. In the medium to long term, these kinds of goods should be made and sourced within the EU. Most citizens expect the state to uphold high standards.

Would you save a loved one if you knew it meant another person’s life is being destroyed somewhere else. More importantly, would the person being assisted want that? Free trade can come with very high social costs. Items may cost the Irish taxpayer less because somebody is living as an indentured slave elsewhere. When I was young in the 1980s, some retail workers were celebrated for protesting against a store selling produce from Apartheid South Africa. Where is the outrage now? We were a poorer country then but maybe we had a greater sense of right and wrong.



Ross McCarthy is MD of Keystone Procurement, a company that works with state, private and charitable bodies on procurement matters




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