Slavery: the business case to act

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Our achingly trendy sub-basement area—'garage chic for lawyers'—typically has a multitude of purposes: law library, break-out lounge, industrial-style kitchen, dance floor.

OK, so not the last one—just checking to see if you were still reading.

This morning, however, the room was transformed into an impromptu lecture theatre for the inaugural 'Lexis Lectures' series. Today's subject? Well, this is where the joking stops. The talk was on the inordinately challenging subject of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

The word 'slavery' can put people off. It isn't a subject that is often connected with business or commercial law:

Slavery? All that 'ball and chain' stuff was over 200-odd years ago

Or

It's not my problem. Somebody else will deal with it. I wouldn't know where to start

Well, I would argue 'no' and 'no'.

Modern day slavery no longer resembles some BBC2 costume drama with unconvincing papier-mâché balls and chains, but just because we struggle to imagine what it looks like in our mind's eye doesn't make it any the less real. It would be comforting to think slavery is a relic of history, however, it sadly remains a scar on humanity on every continent.

Kevin Bales* (from Free the Slaves) and Nick Grono** (from Walk Free) gave us a chilling insight into the reality of this human catastrophe which they have spent many, many years fighting at the highest levels.

The statistics say it all really:

  • 29.8 million people around the world live in slavery (eg the equivalent of roughly half the population of the UK)
  • 4% of the population of Mauritania is enslaved with many people inheriting slave status from their ancestors
  • 4,200—4,600 people are in modern slavery in the UK

They are clearly shocking figures to take in, but Kevin Bales and Nick Grono were quietly optimistic that things can change; that things will change. It may take 20-30 years but it can still happen.

Why? Well, the Global Slavery Index, which was published earlier today by the Walk Free Foundation is raising levels of awareness of the problem. Hundreds of newspapers and TV networks across the world are picking up on the story.

Businesses are also starting to engage with the issue in increasing numbers:

  • from a corporate and social responsibility (eg CSR) point of view, and
  • because many of their customers care deeply about these matters.

Businesses know that customers are increasingly vocal about things that upset them. With Twitter and Facebook a global campaign can start in a teenager's bedroom in Croydon at just before breakfast and, by lunchtime, people in Chigago, Dar Es Salaam and Kuala Lumpur are chatting about it.

For example, does a manufacturer of mobile phones want to be connected in a customer's mind with forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the Congo? Does it want to be connected with children who dig in appalling conditions for minerals such as coltan, a key component in mobile phones?

I think that we know the answer to these questions.

Nick Grono also gave us an example of a report in the Australian Financial Review in June this year which highlighted international companies purchasing products such as airline headphones from a Chinese jail. In this jail, inmates were regularly beaten and held in solitary confinement for failing to meet production targets.

Within days the contracts were ended.

So what can businesses do?

  • Take the issue seriously. According to the UN, human trafficking is the third largest and fastest-growing criminal activity in the world. Slavery can be taking place in any part of your supply chain. Investigate it. Put systems and contracts in place to combat it. If you don't spot it, your customers might very well do this job for you
  • Work constructively with your competitors whilst, of course, complying with any competition laws that may apply. In the past, there have been many successful examples of businesses working together to draw up common standards

LexisNexis has also been working hard in this area too.

The company produces the LexisNexis Human Trafficking Awareness Index™ and has undertaken substantial work on the rule of law including the Global Rule of Law Business Principles which were presented to the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, on 19 September 2013 in New York City.

Things are changing—slowly—but changing nonetheless.

The cancer of the second slave trade can be fought and is being fought by committed individuals such as Kevin Bales and Nick Grono. I truly hope that many more businesses and individuals will be joining them today, tomorrow and in the years to come.

PS If you have time, do take a look at these videos:
[vimeo 7168434 w=500 h=275]

Top 10 Facts About The "S" Word from Free the Slaves on Vimeo.

[vimeo 37626566 w=500 h=275]

Becoming a Slavery-Free Business: Removing Slavery from Product Supply Chains from Free the Slaves on Vimeo.

*Kevin Bales is a co-founder and previous president of Free the Slaves. He is also an author, professor of sociology, and consultant to the United Nations Global Program on Human Trafficking. He is acknowledged one of the world’s foremost experts on modern slavery. He has made it his mission to eradicate global slavery.

**Nick Grono is CEO of Walk Free, an organisation dedicated to ending modern slavery. Prior to taking that position he was deputy president and COO of the International Crisis Group; and before that chief of staff to the Australian Attorney-General. He has been widely published in the Guardian, International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy and elsewhere.

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