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Of the 30 million people around the world currently estimated to be living in slavery, the majority are in the private sector. Their situation is often hidden at the bottom of long, convoluted supply chains, allowing big businesses to abdicate responsibility for the exploitation invested in their goods and services.
Yesterday, peers in the House of Lords, including Baroness Cox, debated the issue of slavery in supply chains.
Baroness Kennedy of Cradley (Labour) instigated and opened the debate. She explained that the increasing outsourcing of production by multinational corporations to suppliers around the world, in order to take advantage of cheaper labour, has led to long and complex supply chains. One multinational business can be globally connected to millions of workers. “These complex supply chains can allow slavery to thrive.”
Baroness Cox, speaking third in the debate, reiterated that forced labour and slavery are flourishing in our supply chains. She noted that, “fuelled by an insatiable desire for cheap goods and produce, it is all too probable that the clothes we wear, the phones in our pockets and the food on our plates may well have been tainted by slave labour at some point on their way to us.”
The Voices of Those Affected
Lady Cox stated that the real impact of the failure to tackle slavery in these supply chains can be truly understood only when we listen to the voices of the victims of that forced labour. She then quoted a number of testimonies collected by Anti-Slavery International in southern India, where the use of prison-like forced labour in the garment industry is routine:
“I would get shouted at if I refused to work an extra four hours. I was only allowed to go outside once every six months because security wouldn’t let us out” – Parvani, 18, southern India.
Mukammal tried to take her daughter home from a mill where she had been working. “My daughter told me that she was suffering with fever and vomiting. I met with the manager and asked him to let my daughter leave because she was so unwell. The management refused, saying that there was a shortage of workers so she couldn’t go”.
A week later her daughter was dead, at 20 years old.
Most workers are unmarried girls and women from poor, lower-caste families; around 60% have a Dalit background. Workers are often cheated out of their wages, fired on trumped-up charges, or become ill and are unable to complete their contract.
“I became very ill and struggled to breathe. Doctors found cotton in my lung and told me that I had developed TB. The management did not give me any money for treatment and refused to pay me for a year and a half’s work”. – Selvi
Baroness Cox then went into detail about a number of ways in which the Government could ensure that the Modern Slavery Bill (currently going through Parliament) robustly tackles the issue of slavery in supply chains.
Slavery in the UK
Baroness Cox concluded by reminding the House that this is also an issue very close to home.
“The NGO Unseen worked with a man from Slovakia called Robert. He came legitimately to the United Kingdom to work on a farm. On arrival in the UK, the price of his coach ticket was raised from £40 to £4,000—a figure he could never repay, a figure he now owed to an illegal gangmaster. Robert was correctly paid the minimum wage by the farmer, but with no additional money and being in debt bondage he had no choice but to live in the horrific conditions provided by the gangmaster. He was forced to hand over his wages each week and accrued still more debt. His bank account was taken over and used for money laundering, and he was severely beaten when he attempted to complain.
This is happening in the UK now. The slave masters holding Robert were only two or three steps down the supply chain to UK supermarkets. How different it would have been for Robert and countless other victims of forced labour and slavery if the business could have announced that it had discovered forced labour in its supply and product chains, and, instead of denial, appropriate steps were taken for redress. This is what we should be working towards, and what I hope the Bill will help to achieve—an environment where businesses proactively join the fight against slavery without fear of becoming entangled in a high-publicity scandal of bad business.
In conclusion, instead of demonising a few and allowing the many to hide the reality, we need to move to a situation where businesses are encouraged to look proactively for modern slavery. Meaningful, effective transparency in supply chains legislation can deliver this.”
We wish to thank Unseen UK and Anti-Slavery International for their immensely valuable contributions to the research for this debate, and for all the work that they and other charities are doing to combat slavery.
Read the full text of the debate here.
To find out what you can do, read this post on the Hidden Cost of Fashion on the HART blog.