While it’s impossible to know exactly how many people are living in modern slavery, the respected Walk Free Foundation put the global number in 2016 at 40.3 million. The systemic nature of this most serious of issues can make us feel powerless. It was really inspiring therefore to attend a couple of sessions at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference which took place last week in London.
The Trust Conference draws delegates from the worlds of activism, civil society, law, government and business across the world, with its mission to find real solutions for fighting slavery, empowering women, and advancing human rights worldwide. It has the sense of a big occasion and I understand it was trending on Twitter at number 2 (after Brexit) when I was there.
In my short time in the room, I felt the power of the forum’s work as potentially transformative pledges of support – financial, legal, technical and moral – were made from the floor to organisations such as Lumos, a charity founded by J.K. Rowling which rescues children from orphanages and finds them loving families to grow up in; and Kranti, a refuge and education NGO for women and girls rescued from Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red light district.
Selling as “Slave-Free”
A session chaired by Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\HIAT\DAY posed the question, ‘Slave-Free’: a unique selling point? Arjen Boekhold of Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch chocolate manufacturer which has come from nowhere to holding 20% of the Dutch chocolate market on the back of its fair trade practices, was a forceful advocate for the motion. And the company’s rapid commercial expansion, soon to hit the UK market, backs up his confidence.
Boekhold detects a real shift taking place among consumers. Traditionally, companies have shied away from selling their anti-slavery credentials even where they thought they were among the market leaders as it inevitably leads to scrutiny that could end up backfiring and place them at a competitive disadvantage. However, brands like Tony’s Chocolonely appear to have captured the zeitgeist. As a generality, millennials combine strong attachment to brands and keen awareness of and engagement with social issues, driven by social media and the internet more widely. It is now key to “invite people into the story” says Boekhold.
Noone can expect slave-free chocolate but a company that has engaged thoroughly with the issue and can report a truthful and comprehensive narrative about the challenges it continues to have in cleaning up its supply chain still stands out. As Boekhold says, the work his business has done on making the labour source of cocoa fully traceable through supplier engagement, monitoring and training has opened up clean supply chains which competitors have been able to leverage themselves. However, being the first mover has helped lead to stunning commercial success which the company is now replicating in markets beyond the Netherlands.
Boekhold’s reference to the Sartre dictum that we can be as responsible for the consequences of our inaction as for the consequences of our action struck a real chord with the audience.
There is a feeling that instruments like the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, with its strong emphasis on transparency and continuous improvement, have helped change the mood and approach to this complex area too.
Stop Slavery Award 2018
Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, presented the Stop Slavery Award, a miniature statue designed by artist and campaigner Anish Kapoor, to Apple for their work in the past year to eradicate slavery in their supply chain. The judging panel referred to Apple’s “vast improvements”, introducing robust audits, supplier support and collaboration, willingness to go public with their learnings and generally widely publicise their programme, warts and all. Also awarded prizes were Unilever (and CEO Paul Polma), Standard Chartered Bank and Thai Union.
TrustLaw: how you can get involved
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 provides opportunities for leading law firms and corporate legal teams around the world to provide pro bono legal support to high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change. Many of these are NGO-directed legal research programmes are focused on combating slavery and human trafficking but there is a wide range of ways in which your legal skills can make a real difference.
Practical Law resources
For more information on Practical Law’s resources designed to assist with your Modern Slavery Act 2015 compliance programme, see Modern Slavery Act 2015: toolkit.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters which has been operating for over three decades. Its programmes promote socio-economic progress and the rule of law worldwide with the aim of informing, connecting and empowering people around the world.