Labour Behind The Label – An Exploration of Modern Slavery & Human Rights

This article was originally published for Be Kind Magazine. Their April issue and subscription offers can be found here.

At A Glance

In the Western world, we are currently experiencing an increased affinity to ethical consumerism, green thinking and warming to sustainable narratives.  Living consciously is integrated into our everyday lives whether it’s our coffee keep cups, sourcing local, omitting plastic or supporting social enterprises, fewer citizens are willing to turn a blind eye to the challenges of sustainable development. The importance of ethical living to effect change has never been more imperative.

In parallel, sustainability has become a buzzword utilised to market a bamboo toothbrush or refillable glass jar. But it is important to look beyond this to understand why it is crucial for the sustainable development of our planet to legislate, pay a living wage and treat its inhabitants equally.

Unearthing the true motivation behind ethical living, with its varying definitions prompts us to explore the contemporary status of human rights across the globe for millions of workers. Let us be clear, nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting someone else!

Whilst the likes of Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough amplify the attention given to the environment, social justice of labourers and our fellow citizens often receive less attention. Eco systems are a crucial stakeholder for global production but so are the individuals who sew and stitch clothes, pick and harvest crops as well as growing rubber for the soles of our shoes.

Why is this relevant now? Just this December, we witnessed Tesco suspend production at a Chinese factory following allegations their Christmas cards were packed by forced prison labour. Supply chain integrity is vital to truly tackling modern slavery but faces numerous challenges due to intricacies of second, third and fourth tier labour networks.

This feature explores the true cost of global production on its labour supply and who is truly accountable and responsible for their welfare. As the popularity of active citizenship and ethical consumption thrives it uncovers the role of business in society and our need for a framework that holds those in power in the CEO suite to account.

It looks specifically at methods to measure human rights and criteria to look out for, whether its labels, alliances, certifications and B corporations.

Paying particular attention to fashion, this provides a helpful lens to contextualise what is truly taking place.

Most importantly, it looks to the future, how we can utilise new technologies and apply our understanding of what it means to be truly ethical in order to encourage better practice across the labour landscape. Consequentially this will show businesses they need to look beyond the financials and find increased value and meaning in doing the right things.

In Focus

Modern Human Rights & Sustainable Development ­

Understanding the basics of Modern Human Rights and international frameworks provides insight into why we are transitioning to live more ethically. The United Nations approximate that over 400 million people are subject to modern forms of slavery with 71% of this demographic being women and children. This high percentile is driven by stereotypical forms of employment deemed suitable for women conditioning their exploitation. To mitigate this, the United Nations has Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which exist to remedy abuses committed in business operations. Consisting of three pillars it looks to firstly demand states respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms. Secondly, it rules on the role of business enterprises to comply and respect all human rights legislation. Finally, it directs the appropriate and effective remedies when human rights protocol is breached.  

So how is Modern Human Rights linked to sustainability? As previously mentioned, sustainability has become a buzzword for a broad green narrative but do we actually know what it means?

Sustainability, as defined by the UN can be determined as the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The global framework for this is the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 goals with 169 targets have been devised to create a global blue print for dignity, peace and prosperity for people and the planet, for now and in the future. They are used by businesses, countries and institutions as an instrument to not only reach climate targets but to focus on securing a safe operating space through agriculture, biodiversity, water, equality, education, investment and so much more! This framework is being increasingly used by governments to inform policy decision making and by businesses to devise sustainability strategies.

Most relevant to the subject of modern slavery and workers’ rights is Goal 1, to end poverty in all its forms, Goal 10 to reduce inequality and Goal 12 to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

On inequality and poverty in the realms of global production, simultaneously to being a predominantly female problem, it is magnified further for younger generations. Modern day slavery statistics report that over 200 million children today are confined to labour. Of this, 120 million are engaged in hazardous work and 73 million are below the ages of 10 years old. The majority of these children are involved in unregulated production of consumer goods including many of our household staples such as cocoa, coffee, cotton, rubber and other crops. A further 20 million of these child workers are employed in factories that make garments, carpets, toys, matches and hand rolled cigarettes. These statistics enshrine the need for international institutions to legislate on appropriate working conditions for factory and sweatshops.

Global Value Chains Explained

But why is it that the supply chains of global corporations are guilty of engaging in modern slavery throughout their production networks? Within business terms, this is best explained through value chains. A value chain is the way in which a company gains value or competitive advantage by outsourcing or completing a specific stage of production in an alternative location where a supplier may possess core competencies/expert knowledge or locational benefits such as low labour costs, to increase the value of the final end product. Cost cutting to maximise profit shares is the traditional way businesses have run and this can be witnessed across the various stages of the chain in design, procurement, production, distribution or retailing. Most relevant to this is the stage of production where the millions aforementioned are tied into tightly controlled conditions and schedules. Chasing the cheapest cost is what has seen cheap labour production in all industries move from China, to South East Asia in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as countries closer to home such as Turkey.  

Despite regulation, this landscape is constantly evolving to drive down the cost of production and increase overall revenue which is why we must focus on raising ethical living standards in all continents not just those that have traditionally received the most attention.

CSR Explained

This leads me to the topic of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and our need to understand this to give further meaning to ethical living and active citizenship. CSR is a self-regulating business model that ensures companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental.

CSR is crucial to regulating and reducing modern slavery because it holds companies to account in terms of auditing, certifications and international standards. Whether this is health and safety, working hours, employee rights, compliancy in these areas contributes to sustainable development and creating ethical products and services. It is, partially due to the contemporary drive behind CSR that we have witnessed a rise of the ethical corporation and surge of sustainable enterprises.

So, what does an ethical corporation or sustainable enterprise look like? Best practice can be found in the guise of non-governmental organisations, certifications, alliances and so forth. For example, one of the most globally recognised is the Fairtrade certification and mark which requires companies to pay sustainable prices (nothing lower than the market price) to its producers. This helps mitigate injustices of conventional trade which discriminate against the poorer, weaker producers.  You may also begin to recognise numerous organisations with B Corp status. The B Corp movement is a call for legislation change and encourages a focus on social and environmental impacts of businesses. For alliances, we can look to the Sustainable Palm Oil Choice (SPOC) as an apt example to increase market acceptance for 100% certified sustainable palm oil in Europe.

Not often spoken about in great detail and remaining mostly in CSR reports or the finer print of annual reports, it is useful to share some important metrics for human conditions and what to watch out for from your favourite companies. As a social dimension, driving the need for transparency, increased information sharing on supply chains and working conditions there are various measurements in place for businesses who make consumer goods. In addition to social audits and inspections you can also see the below:

1996 B88800 ->British Occupational Health and Safety System

SA800 –The Social Accountability International which is a standard to assess ethical profile of supply chains

Global Reporting Initiative – This encompasses 3 areas of sustainability; health and safety, labour human rights and employee retention

ISO2600 -New guidance on social responsibility which regulates on human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues and community involvement and development

For finance this also includes the FTSE4Good Index Series and Dow Jones Sustainability Index which measures global corporations such as Microsoft, Nestle, Citi Group and Samsung on their environmental, social and governance practices.

Fashion Focus ­

Focussing on fashion gives colour to understanding the contemporary issues with modern slavery and human rights. This is a highly female focused production industry as it is deemed as soft labour and a serviced garment economy.  Events within the last decade help to illustrate the true cost of the fashion industry to its labour supply. The most famous being the 2013 Rana Plaza travesty in Bangladesh. Where despite hundreds of warnings that the factory was deemed as a “death trap”, it collapsed killing 1,100 and injuring a further 2,000. This consequently helped to shed light on global retailers including H & M, Topshop & Inditex, across the world and their supply chain practices and mass production processes.

More recently in December we saw the death of 43 sleeping workers caused by a fire in a cramped bag factory in New Delhi. These are just two of thousands of examples of malpractice by corporations at the expense of unfairly treated workers.

What you may find most shocking is that the problem exists much closer to home than it may appear, and our need to democratise the industry within the UK grows. Concentrated in Leicester, supplying clothes to River Island, Boohoo, New Look and Missguided, a Channel 4 investigation revealed that 75% to 90% of the sector was paying an average wage of about £3, a violation of the legal minimum which stands at £8.20. A key element of living truly ethically is demanding the correct price of a garment and true market value, i.e. if you have purchased a dress below £10, it is almost certain unfair labour has been deployed in its creation.

The undeniable link between fast fashion and unregulated labour has fallen under much scrutiny in recent times. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee reported last year that the UK fashion industry, worth over £32 billion and dominated by fast fashion players, is fuelling habits that see the UK throw away 11 million items of clothing, worth £140 million into the bin every year. But at what cost? This motivates organisations like Fashion Revolution who have promulgated the ‘Who Made your Clothes?’ campaign to raise best practice in the industry and drive social reform. I encourage you to tune into the work of Fashion Revolution, the global movement that unites people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way. Their annual transparency index makes for a useful reference to check your favourite brands’ operations!

Altering the smallest of behaviours when purchasing garments emphasises our ability to support ethical organisations. In particular purchasing mindfully with the ideal that items crafted by workers are made to last and be cherished can directly curb the acceleration of detrimental impacts the textile and apparel industries are having on the earth.

Our Role in Society & the Future

Uncovering the connection between ethical living and Modern Human Rights prompts a call to action as to what we must do as essential stakeholders in global production with our powerful status as consumers.  Our voices are the most influential call to incite industry collaboration and the rule of legislation by the government. For example, it must be questioned why did the Conservative Government last year rejected every single proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion report which addressed labour issues?   Holding legislators to account is one element but demanding higher standards from our favourite brands will lead to change. We can witness this transition with the rise in popularity of sustainable brands such as Stella McCartney, Veja and Allbirds, Reformation et al that prove being ethical in their labour practices does not sacrifice overall profit and creates a win-win situation for all involved!

Every day actions to support the movement towards equal human rights conditions can be made by lobbying your local MP, boycotting brands that are exposed for lack of compliancy to working standards, purchasing with provenance from B Corps and social enterprises, or Fairtrade organisations that seek to pay the true value to its workers. Educating one another and sharing information that you find with your network can truly drive momentum for change.

The future for ethical living in influencing our purchasing behaviours looks exciting thanks predominantly to the development of technology. One prime example is blockchain technology used by companies such as Provenance. This technology allows us to access information on supply chains to enhance brand trustworthiness and traceability in terms of their working production conditions. In turn this, helps better not only the planet but the people to drive tangible value for companies. The development of apps such as Good On You is another case. Promoting the concept of wearing the change you want to see, it provides ethical brand ratings and advice on sustainable clothing companies. These inventions help us to navigate away from greenwashing of non-sustainable, non-ethical companies that seek to maximise profits at the expense of their labour force. Greenwashing refers to the incorrect use of genuine green marketing activity to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as socially just or environmentally friendly when they are not so keep your eyes peeled!

Final Thoughts

There can be no doubt, we are on the cusp of a turning point where ethical living is mainstream. Recognition of Fairtrade and ethically sourced products are on the rise. On the theme of ethical consumption and purchasing sustainably for items that are made by fairly paid workers in the correct living conditions, there is much progress to be made to tackle modern slavery. A large intension action gap currently exists whereby generations claim they wish to dedicate the contents of their wallets to sustainable brands yet many fail to follow through in their buying behaviours.

More often than not, it can be a minefield when deducing which organisations are compliant to Modern Slavery legislation and deciphering those that are truly corporately and socially responsible. Actively seeking the truth, chiming for change and lobbying those in power to alleviate suffering in global production chains can only make a positive impact.

Curiosity, self-education and active citizenship is the perfect antidote to living ethically and finding balance in purchasing the things you love and giving the true value to our fellow humans whose skilled hands made them!  ­­­­

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