Governments have the tools, now they must deliver an international agreement on modern slavery

Modern slavery is everywhere. From the construction of FIFA World Cup stadiums in Qatar to the cotton farms of Uzbekistan, from cattle ranches in Paraguay to agriculture in Italy, from sweatshops in Brazil and Argentina to berry pickers in Sweden. The production chains of clothes, food and services consumed globally are tainted with forced labour.

The number of workers in conditions of forced labour is on the rise. The recent 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation in partnership with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) shows that 89 million people have experienced conditions of modern slavery in the last five years.

No reputable company wants the scourge of forced labour in its supply chain. No reputable government wants criminals trafficking workers into inhuman conditions in its territory. All working people want lives of dignity, respect and freedom. And yet the problem of modern slavery is growing. Not just in countries where we most commonly think modern slavery is rife such as those with a weak rule of law or high incidence of corruption.

The Modern Slavery Index 2017 compiled by the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft found that the risk of modern slavery has risen in 20 member states of the European Union. Countries and companies can ill afford to remain passive on this pervasive issue.

Last month, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRCC) published a report, Modern slavery in company operations and supply chains: mandatory transparency, mandatory due diligence and public procurement due diligence. The report highlights all the leading legislation in mandatory transparency, mandatory due diligence and public procurement incentives intended to drive corporate action on modern slavery in supply chains.

Individual governments are developing powerful tools to eradicate modern slavery, but without coordination. So each piece of national legislation is currently only strong in parts, and leading companies are beginning to fear a ‘spaghetti soup’ of incoherent national legislations, each with their own unique reporting requirements. Victims of trafficking and slavery will be best served if like-minded governments now come together to combine the best of their legislation and incentives and create a harmonised, high standard for national legislations.

Take the UK Modern Slavery Act and the Dutch Child Labour Law as examples of how diverse laws on this issue can be when applying a mandatory transparency versus due diligence approach. The transparency in supply chains provision of the UK Modern Slavery Act requires companies to publish annual statements on actions taken to address modern slavery risks but does not require companies to actively take any actions.

The requirement applies to any company operating within the UK, regardless of where the company has its headquarters and so has global reach. The Dutch Child Labour Law, by contrast, applies only to companies registered in the Netherlands and requires them to proactively develop and carry out a due diligence plan to combat the use of child labour. Companies must also publish a due diligence statement, however, they only have to submit the statement once rather than annually.

Companies need clear and common direction on what national laws require of them. Unless these are harmonised they will lose much of their power to exclude criminal traffickers, and companies will complain of reporting fatigue as they respond to diverse government strictures.

Our report sets out a clear pathway for governments to deliver harmonised national legislations, regulation and corporate incentives. The ILO Protocol on Forced Labour provides a strong legal framework on which to base these efforts. Together they would provide an international level playing field for business and facilitate their efforts to eradicate modern slavery from their operations and supply chains.