Modern Slavery And The Private Sector

Raise your hand if you think slavery has been abolished. You probably do. And you would probably be in disbelief if you learned that this heinous violation of human rights is thriving in modern times.

I’d like to try and explain how, with a change of face and techniques, this crime survives and touches our lives. I am going to talk about “modern slavery.”

This term is used to distinguish a new form of exploitation from the slavery of history –  the now-outlawed trade, purchase and ownership of human beings. Modern slavery operates through different and more subtle techniques such as deception, debt and violence imposed on people who become,  and remain,  victims of a situation they cannot escape.

The research group Alliance 8.7 estimated that in 2016 40.3 million people were victims of forms of modern slavery: forced prostitution, forced labour, or forced marriage. Seventy-one percent of the total are women and girls.

Forced labour often affects migrant workers seeking better opportunities in more developed countries. Exploitation usually starts with a form of finance bondage due to the very high fees imposed by recruitment agencies or brokers on the applicants and justified as a way to cover costs such as visas, passports, travel, training and the chance of a job with a good pay. Victims borrow money or get a “loan” in order to catch these opportunities, hoping to quickly repay their debts with the higher salary they are promised. Unfortunately, once at the destination, promises are broken, salaries are not paid and the victims find themselves with no escape.

We find these and similar stories all over: in factories in Cambodia, on fishing vessels in Thailand, in the electronic manufacturing sector in Malaysia, in tomato fields in Italy and the United States, and on farms in the United Kingdom. Almost no country is exempt. Our phones, vegetables, fish, clothes, shoes, cosmetics and several other everyday products we buy and consume could be tainted by forced labour.

Modern slavery is a U.S.$150 billion business. Traditionally, it has been tackled by public sector bodies such as governments, the United Nations, and NGOs working in the field. However, the number of victims helped does not even reach 1%. The private sector is needed in this fight, however it has for a long time remained disenfranchised. This is partially a result of a “name and shame” approach perpetrated – along with boycott campaigns – by some NGOs. While probably useful to shed light on the topic, this aggressive approach in the long term interrupted private-public sector dialogue, which is crucial.

At the Mekong Club, our mission is to engage and inspire the private sector to lead in the fight against modern slavery, as we believe that good business can defeat bad business. One example of a recent initiative is our business pledge against modern slavery, which encourages companies to assess their anti-slavery strategy and improve it over time. We also advocate and strive to bridge the gap between the public and private sector using a collaborative, positive approach toward both.

Companies that get involved in our work understand that addressing slavery is not just a moral obligation, but a business imperative to mitigate their reputation risk and comply with upcoming legislation. By encouraging them to be more socially engaged we pave the way for more responsible business practices that can improve the lives of millions of people.

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