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Beyond Section 54: insights into Modern Slavery Act compliance best practice and more from the Trust Women Conference 2016

Following on from my colleague, Lynsey Poulton’s blog post last week on section 54 Modern Slavery Act statements, I wanted to report back on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Women Conference which took place last week.  The event offered a real opportunity to gather some expert insights on corporate compliance at ground level in this rapidly developing area.

In particular, I was lucky to be in the room for the session “Cleaning the Supply Chains from Forced Labour” (see introductory video), a very insightful panel discussion featuring Kevin Hyland, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner; Paul Lister, Director of Legal Services at Associated British Foods (with responsibility for Primark’s Ethical Trade team); Darian McBain, Global Director of Sustainable Development at Thai Union; and Caroline Meledo, Senior Manager, Corporate Responsibility at Hilton.  The moderator was Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund.

It is still not widely understood that modern slavery is such a colossal issue.  There are an estimated 45.8 million people globally living as slaves, according to the Walk Free Foundation, in an industry which generates an estimated US$ 150 billion in illegal profits a year (International Labour Organization).

It was very heartening, therefore, to hear panellists with such obvious commitment to eliminating this brutal trade and with such vital intelligence to share.  Here are some key messages:

  • Kevin Hyland explained how the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 had pushed discussion of slavery and human trafficking into the boardroom.

Mr Hyland stressed that companies should not look at supply chain ethics and profitability as separate issues, but as fundamentally joined-up and intrinsic to how the enterprise operates, closely connected with quality assurance, corporate responsibility and operating standards.  Tackling slavery is complex and cannot be a tick box exercise.

  • Mr Hyland also expressed the hope that companies would get to a point where “success was measured by how we treat our fellow man, not measured by the size of the bank balance”.
  • Companies were encouraged to collaborate with other businesses as well as with NGOs and charities to identify best practices for uncovering forced labour and to ensure that a company code of conduct in respect of slavery was monitored and adhered to.

All the businesses represented on the panel emphasised the need to be vigilant and forensic in their approach to identifying forced labour in their supply chains. This involves having investigators on the ground, as well as helplines and education programmes for employees to ensure they understood their rights.

  • Paul Lister emphasised the importance of “looking to find”.  In the forensic exercise of verifying supply chains, he said there should be no fear of the possibility of finding forced labour and drew a parallel with investigative journalism.  Companies should not shy away from finding, reporting and then addressing instances of slavery.  Transparency with all stakeholders including suppliers, partners, NGOs and even end-consumers is fundamental.  He also stressed the importance for brands like Primark, where the raw materials are so intrinsic to the product, to audit every tier of the supply chain.  Primark has a relationship on the ground with around 10,000 farmers in India alone.
  • Darian McBain highlighted the role of capacity-building, with a collaborative approach employing helplines and similar methods, to help suppliers to gradually change working practices and culture.  Companies should avoid a rush to disengage from a supplier where forced labour had been identified.  Collaboration is the most effective way to improve conditions.

Elsewhere at the conference

Trust Women was established by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to find real solutions to empower women and to fight slavery worldwide. I was very privileged to attend this year’s inspiring event which drew together 700 delegates and speakers (and thousands online) from all parts of the world with a wide range of stories to tell, including representatives from global corporations, lawyers, government representatives, and pioneers in the field of women’s rights and anti-slavery as well as a number of former victims of trafficking and slavery.

Of special note, Trust Women presented its first ever Stop Slavery Award.  The award has been established to recognise businesses that have excelled in their efforts to eradicate modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.  The winning companies were NXP Semiconductors and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE).

The event also featured an appearance from Hollywood star, Gillian Anderson, who plays the real life role of an anti-slavery campaigner in the film “Sold” which was screened at the conference.

Getting involved in the Thomson Reuters Foundation  

Lawyers are particularly well-placed to get involved with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  The Foundation’s global pro bono legal programme, TrustLaw, is the largest of its kind in the world.

TrustLaw connects leading law firms and corporate legal teams around the world with high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change.  In particular, there are a large number of NGO-directed legal research programmes focused on combating slavery and human trafficking and there is a wide range of capacities in which you can bring your legal skills to life to make a difference to these NGOs and their work.

Contact TrustLaw for more information and find out how you can get involved.

The emerging new frontier of regulation: modern slavery and human rights

TrustLaw is also heavily involved in thought leadership and ground-breaking research alongside partner law firms and NGOs.  For instance, in October TrustLaw enabled the publication of a report, “Corporate Liability for Forced Labour and Human Trafficking”, written by Hogan Lovells and the Institute for Human Rights and Business.  The report provides detailed analysis of the development of soft and hard law instruments in a number of key jurisdictions to combat slavery and human trafficking.

Beyond the Modern Slavery Act, regulation in the field of human rights, including anti-slavery, continues to gather pace rapidly and in-house counsel should be monitoring developments closely.

Anna Triponel’s blog post from earlier this year provides some excellent tips to help you channel the world of soft law, in particular the Protect – Respect – Remedy framework laid down in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Rob Beardmore

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