Belfast Telegraph

Firms' help required to stamp out slavery

By Glenn Bradley

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into effect October 29, 2015. This corporate law requires companies doing business in Great Britain and Northern Ireland by supplying goods or services, and which have an annual turnover exceeding £36m, to disclose information regarding their policies to eradicate all forms of slavery (which includes child, bonded and forced prison labour) and human trafficking.

Section 54 of the Act specifically requests that corporations demonstrate ethical transparency within their supply chain and within their local business.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs whose processes are recognised by government and the United Nations Human Rights Council (NHRC), conducted a survey across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It discovered that 71% of companies questioned believed their supply chains to have some form of slavery in them.

While the Modern Slavery Act has been debated in boardrooms for some time, it is anticipated that corporate interest in the act will now begin to increase because official reporting begins this financial year. It is expected that submissions of statements and action plans will be presented along with audited accounts, although the Government has yet to confirm this.

There are an estimated 21 million people trapped in some form of slavery today. In Northern Ireland, there is an institutionalised 'low cost wins' mentality across many industrial sectors, but particularly in public realm works. This mindset means that many buyers and influencers are so focused on breaking design specifications or client requirements to secure cheaply priced materials that they forget - or actually don't care - that a low-cost product is often delivered through the use of illegal production origins where human and labour rights abuse take place.

It is a sad reality of business life in both jurisdictions of Ireland that many ethical pioneers are very often disadvantaged because unscrupulous buyers or sourcing guideline influencers choose to permit the very cheapest of materials without checking that the product is made and delivered ethically.

Very few ask: "Did this product come from a supply chain that is recognised as working to eradicate labour or human rights abuse within the framework set out in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights?"

In my company, our ethical trade work is cemented in the base code principles of ETI and the Modern Slavery Act. Section 54 regarding ethical transparency is welcome because, for the first time, all large companies - and not just those of us that have typically been ethical trade leaders - will legally have to consider the labour and human rights of the workers who produce the materials they buy or sell.

Companies will not only have to report on their immediate suppliers, but also on manufacturers in the lower level tiers of their supply chain and validate that their supply chain is working in a recognised process to eradicate labour and human rights abuse.

The act will be a game-changer for companies across Northern Ireland. It will breathe much-needed ethical air into how a business trades and will absolutely bring a positive impact to improve supply chain workers' lives - locally and globally.

Belfast Telegraph