In what is, perhaps, the most damning indictment of food supply chain 'slavery' complicity, the respected British Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply's latest survey found that nearly three-quarters of supply chain professionals admitted they had "zero visibility" on the earlier stages of their supply chains. Eleven per cent said this meant it was "likely" slave labour was used at some point in the supply chain. Turning the screw, the Institute's chief executive, David Noble, claimed "Consumers and business leaders have entered into a 'don't ask, don't tell' pact and that they "are content to remain ignorant of the malpractice that could be operating throughout their supply chains." Company leaders were also twice as likely as purchasing managers to say their supply chains are transparent.
David Noble did not include in "consumers" the end consumer, i.e. the public who buy their food mainly from big retailers, for they are totally ignorant of each bought product's supply chain pedigree and while they may know the food manufacturer's name from the packaging they would be unaware as to whether or not the manufacturer has subsidiaries operating in countries where food production slavery is rife and the company is part of it. Yet the public has shown its concerns over such issues and even mobilised public opinion to boycott certain companies profiting from 'sweatshops', as they were euphemistically known, operating in emerging countries where regulations of all kinds are lax or routinely ignored. It is a pity that culpable corporations do not share the public's concerns on a meaningful scale.
The stench of the Atlantic slave ships before abolition may have long gone along with the shackles, and all countries have outlawed the institution but slavery's stench remains in more subtle, less public forms but where the shackles of fear are just as binding. The most common form of slavery today is called collateral debt bondage, which involves people who have borrowed money pledging themselves and their family as bonded labourers to the loan sharks or slave holders, which can carry on for generations until the debt is paid.
According to the 2012 International Labour Organisation report on slavery, the world's forced labour total is 20.9 million, with Asia having the most at 11.7 million. Another measurement of global slavery, however, the The Global Slavery Index, puts the total at 29.8 million, half of which are in India. The Index, which ranks 162 countries, puts China, Pakistan and Nigeria along with India as the four countries with the largest number of slaves. But even the most developed of western countries, like America, have tainted hands, where the slave population estimate is 60,000, among them temporary visa holders and domestic servants. In Britain, where a modern slavery bill is before parliament, the figure is put at a more modest 4,426. There may well be an element of double counting and other flaws in the various surveys' methodologies but any amended figures would still be grotesquely alarming.
While Britain is to be commended for proposing a modern slavery law, the only country in Europe to do so, Britain's Home Secretary, Teresa May, warned that its proposed slavery bill could not solve the slavery issue by legislation alone, and its remit would not extend effectively beyond the country's shores. John Manners-Bell, of the consultancy, Transport Intelligence, said that "many manufacturers and retailers believe that when they outsource the production of their goods to remote suppliers, often based in emerging markets where there are fewer regulations, they outsource the moral responsibility for the conditions in which their goods are manufactured."
Such cynical buck passing is unforgivable and food retailers, in particular, have consistently shown that their own feeble attempts to clean up their supply chains have failed miserably. Like the UK police forces, they cannot be trusted to self regulate. For proof of that one need look no further than the horse meat scandal 18 months ago where horse meat was found in many products labelled as beef. Half of the supply chain professionals say that the scandal has not led to the risks being taken more seriously.
David Noble believes that if the slavery bill passing through Britain's parliament is "to have a chance of eliminating slavery from the British supply chain and we are to avoid repetition of the horse meat scandal then we must empower supply chain procurement professionals. " Such action would be better than nothing, one supposes, but to whom would the procurement professionals be answerable? If it is to the boards of companies with dubious links to slavery then the suggestion is touchingly naive. Perhaps more effective would be partly government/business financed, independent watchdogs with the resources to research areas of suspected supply chain slavery and then effectively publishing the results nationwide so that the public would have the ammunition to invoke the ultimate weapon all company boards fear and cannot withstand --- sustained, concerted boycotts. There are many precedents where such consumer action has been efficacious in many industries. Retailer Primark reportedly paid $9 million in compensation to try to salvage its reputation, Samsung Electronics recently said it halted business with a supplier in China over suspected use of child workers and Starbucks, pilloried over its insouciant tax avoidance schemes, caved in temporarily to public condemnation.
Slavery has never gone away because greed has never gone away. It may have changed its tactics and cloaks but so long as greed remains so, too, its handmaiden of corruption will flourish, and it is in emerging countries where corruption is worst. If concerned countries unite to make life much more difficult through naming and shaming, as well as boycotts of miscreant or unconcerned corporations, then the prayers of the oppressed women, children and men may at last be heard and their tears wiped away.
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Thailand's trawlers of terror shame food supply chains
Slavery shames British food supply chains