In the first of two think-pieces, ETI's Head of Modern Slavery Strategy, Cindy Berman, discusses some of the lessons she's learned from 2018.
Over the past year, my role at ETI has changed to enable me to focus on modern slavery strategy, which is a critical issue for our members. Modern slavery and transparency legislation and new requirements for corporate human rights due diligence have helped to drive a stronger focus on labour rights at national, regional and international levels. It’s been an interesting and challenging year and I wanted to share a few things I’ve learnt.
It’s not just about making noise
The “noisy” work in fighting modern slavery includes all the public meetings and conferences; the awards, rankings and indexes; the reports and media coverage; the new legislation, policies, and statements. It also includes services and support to victims, as well as the funding, projects and programmes that are based on good evidence and designed to make a difference.
These are all important. Some of these efforts are showing progress and making a real difference.
But the “quiet” work is just as important – and maybe more so.
The quiet work can also be slow work. It’s the business of building trust between diverse stakeholders – governments and companies, workers and employers, businesses and trade unions – and between different parts of a supply chain – the buyers, suppliers, brokers, agents, and intermediaries that enable the supply of goods and services. But it’s also about understanding the circumstances and needs of specific workers – migrants, contract or agency workers, women and other vulnerable groups of workers.
Behind the scenes
Much of this happens behind the scenes. It’s the business of influencing purchasing managers and designers. It’s talking with the people issuing contracts, negotiating prices, volumes, quality, and timing, the people who work out how much things cost and how much the business can afford.
Their salaries and incentives are all about meeting targets. These aren't the people on the podium or in the board room; they aren't at the meetings to discuss modern slavery, but they are crucial to the business of addressing it.
And probably the most important people of all aren’t the ones making the most noise. I refer to the workers without voices, who don’t complain because they're desperate for an income and scared of what will happen if they do speak out. They don’t have a say over the jobs they are expected to do, the hours they work, the wages they are paid, or the type of contract they are given. Many can’t leave their employer without losing their job, and can’t claim their basic entitlements as workers under established labour legislation. They may be migrant workers who don’t understand the language where they work and live. Or they may have uncertain legal status.
In such circumstances, fear, desperation and lack of trust make them silent and voiceless. It is therefore critical that these workers have access to remedy when they are harmed by the actions of businesses as this will empower them to access their rights and claim what is owed to them.
Supporting quiet action
The quiet business of combating modern slavery is carried out in the gaps between the ‘noisy’ regulations and the actual implementation, between the lawmakers and those expected to execute those laws. And often these people aren’t given enough support, resources or attention.
In the noisy category we find the well-known retailers and brands. They are the public-facing businesses with reputations to lose. They are not exempt from responsibility, and yes, they need to be held to account for their actions.
But there are also the ‘quiet’ businesses, which aren’t household names. They make the plugs and the shelves, the buttons and the microchips; they run the logistics, the warehouses, the trucks and the ships that transport the cargo; they are the commodity traders, the small family-run businesses, the back-street operations that provide the essential components of what is bought and sold.
In their own spheres, they too might lack a voice – an ability to negotiate the terms of a deal. They face growing competition every day and make difficult choices. They're unlikely to be at the modern slavery roundtables either, yet they need to be supported to make the right choices.
The quiet business of fighting modern slavery can be a slow process. It takes a lot of time to build know-how and trust and to change mindsets and systems that have operated for years. Change won’t happen overnight.
No one simple solution
Getting serious about modern slavery means being honest about how big and complex the problem is.
If anyone says they have the solution – a new toolkit, an app, a certificate, a consultancy or NGO that is taking care of the problem – they’re missing the point. There is no one simple solution.
Take the case of child labour. Children do harmful and hazardous work not only because a company is willing to exploit them and abuse their vulnerability. They often work because there is no decent schooling available or because their parents can’t afford to send them to school. Maybe the parents can’t afford to feed their families without an additional source of income.
Children work because governments fail to provide social protection and education for all. Maybe they live in remote places. Or maybe they belong to a social group facing discrimination and have been denied equal opportunities to healthcare, education, housing or jobs. We can’t blame one single actor, much as we might like to identify ‘good guys and bad guys’. The problems are systemic.
So if it’s not just about making noise, what can we do? In my next blog, I’ll be taking a look at some of the practical lessons I’ve learned from the past year.