LONDON, April 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern slavery lurks across global supply chains yet competition between companies to produce ever cheaper goods means the world is unlikely to meet a United Nations goal to end forced labour by 2030, anti-slavery experts said on Wednesday.
Businesses are fuelling modern-day slavery as they seek to maximise profits by cutting labour costs to meet rising consumer demand for cheaper goods and services while turning a blind eye to worker abuses in their operations, said a panel in London.
“Labour exploitation has been built into companies’ business models because we as consumers want products cheaper and faster,” said Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland.
With forced labour increasingly seen as a major global ill, there is growing scrutiny on the role of business in meeting a U.N. target to end by 2030 a crime estimated to enslave about 25 million people and raise annual illegal profits of $150 billion.
“As it stands, the world is not on track to meet the 2030 target set by the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals),” said Alison Campbell from Britain’s foreign aid department (DFID).
“Due to stigma, businesses do not want to stand up and say they have slavery in their supply chains ... but we need them to do that to work towards change,” the slavery specialist added.
From cosmetics and clothes to smartphones, supply chains are complex with multiple layers across various countries, and big brands are under pressure from consumers to disclose what they are doing to ensure products are free of forced or child labour.
“(Yet) we have a perverse scenario in which companies and even countries are competing for business on grounds of offering cheaper labour costs,” said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of trade unions, firms and charities.
“Governments must also be willing to set the red line below which nobody can fall otherwise (forced labour) will thrive.”
The world’s top economies have boosted spending on the anti-slavery drive, according to new U.N. data exclusively given to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but activists say companies must to play a bigger role by ensuring their products are slave-free.
Many businesses say audits and certification schemes such as Fairtrade help them clean up their supply chains yet such tools are ineffective in an economy that encourages forced labour, said Genevieve LeBaron of Britain’s University of Sheffield.
"If we want to get serious with tackling forced labour, can we have a global economy focused on low cost production, fast turnover and cheap products?," the politics lecturer said. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)