Turning a Blind Eye: The Problem of Awareness of Forced Labor in Supply Chains
The California Trafficking in Supply Chain Act ("TISCA") requires retailers and manufacturers with gross receipts of $100 million to disclose their efforts to address forced labor. The transparency provision in the UK Modern Slavery Act applies to organizations with an annual turnover of £36m.
What Percent of Companies are Aware of Forced Labor in Their Supply ChainAccording to research conducted by the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at the Hult International Business School, 71 percent of companies in the United Kingdom believe there is a likelihood of forced labor occurring at some point within their supply chains. An estimated 12,000 businesses in the UK are required to publish forced labor statements. The Modern Slavery Registry by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre currently includes only 2,112 forced labor statements. 85 percent are from UK headquartered businesses, while 15 percent (320) are from international companies based in 32 other countries that have UK operations.
In California, the information is harder to come by as the Attorney General refuses to make public the list of companies required to report. However, Christopher Bayer, a principal at Development International, identified 1,961 companies with forced labor disclosure statements, and 1,375 additional companies that may be subject to reporting requirements, but who did not have disclosures.
Mandatory Transparency Laws are not EnoughThe significant disparity in the figures for compliant forced labor disclosures highlights the need for continuing awareness. Companies are not only reluctant to tackle the enforcement issue because of the monetary costs, but are also reluctant to tackle the transparency issue because of the social cost.
No reputable company wants the scourge of forced labor in its supply chain, and many fear acknowledging its existence will paint a bullseye on its back. Non-governmental organizations like Development International and the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking are putting forth initiatives that if brought together with the companies, would reward their anti-trafficking efforts and minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of becoming a target for anti-trafficking activists.
Many advocates believe that lack of awareness - or a refusal to acknowledge - the existence of forced labor and modern-day slavery is at the root of the problem. Workers themselves often don't realize they are being subjected to illegal forced labor practices that violates their human rights. And even if they do, they have no voice. Where there is no voice, there is no action.
But, it is not enough to call for an end to the exploitation. We must also think of new ways to tackle the problem, and enforce existing laws. Progress depends on both a carrot and stick approach to awareness and enforcement.
Enforcement Is Gaining TractionSince 2012 when California's TISCA transparency law took effect, not a single enforcement case has been brought by the Attorney General's office (private citizens are not allowed to bring TISCA enforcement actions). But, great strides are being made in the forced labor movement, and there is tremendous potential to challenge the status quo. New pioneering legislation and inspiring legal efforts to enforce existing laws are being brought forward every day.
Big businesses, lured by dollars, turn a blind eye to the real problem of forced labor in their supply chains. In its worst form, this results in grave violations of human rights by violence and even kidnapping. With the right balance between preventive awareness measures and prosecutorial enforcement, we can, indeed we must, make a real impact for the millions of victims of forced labor around the world and bring about change.