Modern slavery, illicit trade: pressuring companies better than legislation


British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a meeting on action to end modern slavery and human trafficking on the sidelines of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a meeting on action to
end modern slavery and human trafficking on the sidelines of the
72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New


Combating illicit trade and modern slavery is best done by
pressuring companies directly, even when their promises are
hollow, according to a leading human rights lawyer and activist.

The alternative of introducing legislation as a first step is
often inneffective, says Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, secretary
general of NGO No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), since companies
lobby against lawmakers’ efforts, find loopholes or simply deny
they are in breach of new rules. Getting companies to agree to
better self-regulation is often easier and more effective.

“You can get companies to set a much higher standard if they
believe the compliance mechanism is essentially themselves,” says
Figà-Talamanca. “Then you can creep legislative efforts in, and
it’s much harder for them to lobby against stuff that they’ve
already agreed to.”

Starting with legislation, he says, “usually addresses last
year’s problem,” since implementing new laws is often very slow.
Meanwhile, parliamentarians “can say they’ve done something to
clean up the supply chain,” he says, but the result is “a new
standard, which is a c**p standard.”

Earlier this year, the UK’s National Crime Agency said the
slave trade in the UK is “
more prevalent
” than expected, with trafficked labour
prevalent in domestic servitude and sex work as well as in the
agricultural and construction industries. Meanwhile,
llicit trade networks, which deal in weapons, drugs,
human beings and more, generate billions every year, according to the
, and the drug market in the EU alone is worth an
estimated €24 billion per year,
according to EUROPOL

The textiles industry is a good example of how successful
self-criticism can be, particularly for client-facing businesses,
and when brands’ names are part of the value of the product. Many
clothing retailers faced a consumer backlash in recent years
against allegations that
brands like Primark
were using “sweatshops” and workers in
slave-like conditions to produce products.

As a result, says Figà-Talamanca, “H&M have to be responsible
for their whole supply chain,” and cannot claim not to be
responsible for the way their suppliers treat workers.

Tech giant Apple has also 
discussed finding instances of human rights

 and conflict minerals in its supply chain.
This is “fantastic,” says Figà-Talamanca, because “it really
raises the bar for everybody else.”

However, there is much more to be done. Speaking at the Financial
Times’ Combating Illicit Trade conference on Thursday, Ruth
Freedom Pojman, an expert in human trafficking at the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said there
were an estimated 116 million workers and forced labourers
globally hidden in supply chains.

Affecting change in non-client facing sectors, such as the
extractive industry, is particularly challenging, says
Figà-Talamanca, since 
customers are not buying a
brand, and “gold is gold.”

Sometimes, he says, it feels like companies will only take action
“if they hear the jingle of handcuffs in the boardroom.” But
putting pressure on industry leaders, like Apple, is crucial, he
says, since many are now looking to build reputations for being
sustainable and good global citizens.

“Try and set the standard as high as possible even when you know
that it’s a lie, because then you try and hold them to that lie,”
he says. “This is the game.”


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