We all like to think that slavery had been completely eradicated over a hundred years ago. And for the most part, we certainly don’t see those horrid lines of chained labourers or human auctions often portrayed in our history books and movies.
However, just because we haven’t seen such things in our polite societies, doesn’t mean it is no longer there in some form in distant (and sometimes not so distant) parts of the world.
One of the greatest yet also most uncomfortable truths of the 21st century is that the internet has allowed information to travel faster than the old days of post and fax. And in this great din of social media and news websites, we hear unfortunate stories of modern-day slavery. (To think that if we had actually achieved the 20th century ideal of more transparent supply chains, we would know exactly what was going on in our supply chains but clearly we don’t!)
Despite all our efforts, we still have slave labour happening around the world. And the worst part is, we may have supply chains that have been implicated.
In its 2018 report on global slavery, the Walk Free Foundation, a campaign group, examined supply chains in the G20 group of large economies. Its aim was to work out which countries use which policies against exploitation. The G20 accounts for three-quarters of global trade. However, only seven of its members have rules to lower the risk that goods and services are sourced from forced labour.
Of course, these are often a problem of supply chain visibility and holding all our partners, suppliers and manufacturers accountable for transparency. (And on that note, the same information technology being used by whistleblowers is also being developed to force more transparency in our contracts.)
Still, there are other factors that need to be considered before supply chain managers can genuinely face this problem of modern-slavery, why it persists and what is the exact role their organisations play.
#1. The definition of modern slavery.
Defining the term itself is actually one of the unexpectedly hardest questions about the issue. To date, there is still no globally agreed definition. This has led to a lot of challenges regarding the true statistics tracking the prevalence of modern slavery in the world economy.
Still, all would agree that problems like human trafficking and child labour are sure signs of modern slavery happening in the world today. There is no shortage of initiatives that have tried to disconnect supply chains from third parties tied to these inhumane practices.
That is not necessarily enough though. Other forms of slavery also include workers trapped in underpaying jobs because rampant poverty and desperation keeps them there. Same goes for companies that only provide basic salary, but no additional protections or benefits like sick leave or maternity leave. The reason why modern slavery has taken a new face is because it does not look like slavery on paper, but it still manages to be immensely unjust and harmful in practice.
#2. The problem of working conditions.
Aside from wages and benefits, working conditions are also another piece of the puzzle often ignored. Sure, a report may seem like an employee is being paid a fair salary for the job that they do. But in reality, they may be working in factories that have poor ventilation or use dangerous, poorly maintained equipment while offering no compensation in the event of an accident (as well as the onset of negative, long-term health effects).
This is also another form of modern slavery and it is still relatively easy for things to go under the radar until organisations understand what truly qualifies as transparent when dealing with contractors, subcontractors, agents, and distributors in their supply chain.
#3. Unintended consequences.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is dealing with unexpected consequences that come out of our attempts to curb the prevalence of modern slavery.
Picture this: Say you have decided to stop doing business with certain suppliers that have been found guilty of violating anti-slavery legislation. You may have thought you did a good job, but then you read in the news that the people who once worked in that factory you helped drive out of business are now even far worse off because they have no other means to make a living.
This means that, whether anybody likes it or not, everyone has to work harder at finding win-win solutions to help the victims of this 21st century travesty, and not just sweep these consequences under the rug. If anything, that is what gives the job of supply chain leadership such prestige! You must always be prepared for such adverse consequences while still staying true to the goal.
Now, while this all points to the conclusion that the problem of modern slavery is clearly not going to be solved overnight, it does remind us that such things are ultimately unsustainable.
A supply chain that seemingly thrives at the expense of human dignity is one that is already set for its own decline. Consumers and customers will not buy the products. They will voice their dislike. Governments will get involved, and the business ultimately collapses. It is only logical that signs of modern slavery should be as negative a mark as any other inefficient, unprofitable processes and technologies in every organisations’s supply chains.