There are more slaves today than at any point in recorded human history. Many are hidden in the maze of vast, complex supply chains. Lulwa Rizkallah and Kathryn Casson spoke to four leading experts on what businesses can—and should—do.
There are 40 million people in modern slavery today, more than any point in recorded human history. Fifteen million are trapped in forced marriages. Forced labor comprises the remaining 25 million, of which the overwhelming majority—more than 60%—are associated with supply chains.
Modern supply chains are tiered. Tier one refers to the largest, most advanced suppliers that deal directly with multinational companies. Tier two suppliers are smaller and supply those in tier one, and so it goes down the chain. Accountability charts a similar course. Each company is typically responsible for ensuring the quality of the suppliers it deals with directly. A 2020 analysis by McKinsey hints at the scale and complexity of these chains—and the challenge facing businesses looking to impose uniform standards across them. Analyzing two Fortune 100 companies, they estimated each relied on roughly 4,000 suppliers in the first two tiers alone.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that modern slavery generates $150 billion in illegal profits every year—the only crime more lucrative is drug trafficking, which rakes in roughly $300 billion annually.
The pandemic has intensified the problem in two main ways. First, its economic fallout has left millions more vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor—the ILO estimates that 225 million full-time jobs were lost in 2020 and 1.6 billion informal economy workers were in danger of losing their livelihoods. Second, the pandemic has put workers’ rights—from the gig economy to warehouse workers—in the spotlight. Stakeholders are paying more attention to what companies are doing, and they are demanding more meaningful action.
Brunswick spoke with leaders from four organizations on the front lines of the fight against modern slavery. Whether building coalitions and partnerships with the private sector, providing research to investors, or benchmarking companies, they represent some of the most informed—and influential—voices on the issue.
What enables modern slavery, and what steps can businesses be taking to address it?
ANTONIO ZAPPULLA: Modern slavery is the symptom of a larger set of deep-rooted issues—poverty, a lack of education and socio-economic inclusion, and gender and racial discrimination. The global economy is also still very much geared to favor short-termism over stakeholder value, which only serves to fuel the problem.
In terms of what needs to be done, modern slavery can only be addressed through a global response, one which combines the forces of multiple players—front-line NGOs and activists, the legal, investment and business sectors, policymakers, academics, economists and journalists. Facilitating partnerships is at the heart of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s inclusive economies work, which encompasses all our anti-slavery initiatives and our efforts to foster sustainable and responsible business models. I cannot overstress the critical need to strengthen the wider ecosystem.