Modern Slavery Act statements and women in supply chains

Your modern slavery statement and the Kavanaugh case.

I’m going to ask you to forgive me for writing this from an assumption that US Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh did grope Dr Christine Blasey Ford 36 years ago while she fought back under him lying heavily on top of her after he and a friend pushed her into a bedroom at a small house party in their teens. And to make this real, remember, this could be any of your daughters, or in my case, niece. I know from personal experience (#MeToo) that this really happens, and I know many others that similar violence has happened to.

So what does the Kvanaugh case have to do with that “Modern Slavery Statement” your company, due to being a UK registered business with over £36 million annual turnover globally, had to publish on your website to comply with the UK Modern Slavery Act Section 54 on “Transparency in Supply Chains”?

The Kavanaugh case is about sexual assault, an issue which is becoming more reported in supply chains. It’s one thing to be a privileged westerner who as a teenager went to a small house party you perhaps shouldn’t have (as no parents were there while kids drank beer), and to end up vulnerable to drunk guys trying to rape you, yet able to leave and avoid these men in future. It’s another issue to, in all innocence and earnest, take up an opportunity to work abroad and learn new skills in a top export factory making famous international fashion, toys, or technology, as many young women from Bangladesh do to Malaysia, or Chinese to Japan, Vietnamese to Taiwan, and eastern Europeans to the UK. The reason the Modern Slavery Act, and it’s predecessor the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (and upcoming Australia Modern Slavery Act) were created, is that people taking up these international work opportunities usually also agree before leaving home to pay an agent for the role, for which they may have taken out a loan. Upon arrival in the new country, factory, and dormitory, they often find there are unexpected further fees, and now it might take many months, or even years to pay these back in conditions often not as good as those described before coming abroad, and often leaving them vulnerable.

I’ll now link your modern slavery statement to the Kavanaugh case. Picture let’s say a 19-year-old young woman, who has every intention of working hard and diligently for her employer and to support her family back home, yet is now stuck, or “bonded” as said in the world of modern slavery, and vulnerable. Remember that this young woman could be your daughter, niece, friend, and imagine how easy it is for a (usually) male supervisor to, as has been increasingly reported in recent years, take advantage and start sexually harassing or abusing. There are corridors to walk down in factories. There are “meetings” to be had in meeting rooms, trainings, one on one “coaching” to be delivered, hidden dark storage areas for materials or shipments. And unlike for Ford, who, despite difficulty, was able to escape and run from the house where young men tried to rape her, there may be nowhere except your dormitory to go if you are in Malaysia where the police will arrest young migrants on the street and sometimes subject them to worse abuse, or Japan or Taiwan where you don’t speak the language and are looked down, or even the UK where until recently immigrants had no one to report abuse to. Now they just might know of the UK Modern Slavery Hotline if your company helped promote this (because there’s a good chance the supervisor won’t want to), but even then, it’s still confusing about how help can be gained. You may also come from a culture where the shame of discussion of any sexual activity before marriage, even not of your own will, is deeply frowned upon.

Your company’s Modern Slavery Act Statement, was, yes, about reporting on how your company checks that the worst forms of labour abuse might not be occurring or might be remediated. These might include the type of modern slavery highlighted by the UK case of chicken-catching workers in 2016, in which a company had to pay out £1 million in compensation for supervisors having  “unlawfully withheld wages and failed to ensure the workers had adequate facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink” and harassed, assaulted and threatened the working men. Or of forced child labour in so-called “conflict mineral” mining in Congo. Or of Cambodian men held for months on fishing boats in supply chains of international supermarkets. Or they might just include checking that the people who clean your UK offices aren’t working under duress, and especially that women who are vulnerable might know somewhere effective to report supervisor verbal or sexual harassment and be able to get your influential buyer support if remediation was ever needed.

Checking for and improving vulnerable conditions for the women and men in your supply chain is the real work though, not just writing a statement, and it can be complicated. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start to go deeper. In fact, there are business benefits to this work when we remember how much more productive people are when they feel safe, supported, and cared for at work in your supply chain. Suppliers who care for their people, or ensure their sub-contractors do, will be the most productive to keep prices stable for your business purchasing. We now have well over a decade of research documenting the benefits of better workplaces for the productivity increases we so desperately need, if you read UK headlines, or China factory managers complaining they can’t get enough workers from the “new generation”, and we now have the means to make work productive.

I speak Chinese, worked many years interviewing women and men in supply chains in China and across Asia, and have worked with Chinese and international factory managers, suppliers, licensees, procurement teams and business partners assessing, training, encouraging and driving documented supply chain workplace conditions and productivity improvements. In recent decades, led by the apparel and consumer goods industries, we’ve invented a new discipline in Responsible Sourcing, Responsible Procurement, or Ethical Trade(whichever name you prefer). I’m passionate about applying my experience to help businesses understand the steps it takes to start this journey, to support implementation, and deliver tracked, rigorously verified, reportable results. Supply Chain conditions monitoring work is legislated, has business benefits for your company, and has real human impact. I’m launching a course to help more business understand the key steps, the map of various tools and approaches to consider, and to support your business to start or deepen your journey to gaining the benefits, and being a leader in creating safer workplaces we all can be proud to be associated with. I’ll be introducing leading experts across Asia in assessing, investigating, and remediating modern slavery risk where it is found, and influencing safe, decent, productive workplaces to a maximum five online course attendees over five weeks. If a course isn’t your need right now, or you’d just like to hear more insights, perhaps from my free podcasts, click here to join my SupplyESChange mailing list, and follow and share here on linkedin.

Take a step towards ending the pain of sexual harassment and abuse, and especially for the most vulnerable in conditions of modern slavery. Thanks for sharing this article to get the message out that there are things we can do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *