When we think of those who are behind the heinous crime of modern slavery, we imagine ruthless criminals - traffickers who manipulate, abuse and exploit their victims; slave masters who withhold wages while forcing employers to work in inconceivable conditions. This is an accurate picture. But we must keep in mind that business leaders, unaware though they may be, often play a part.
Many victims of modern slavery find themselves in the supply chains of top businesses, whether it is children mining for cobalt used to power our mobile phones, factory workers producing the clothes sold on our high streets or women picking cocoa beans, coffee beans and tea leaves for our daily consumption. These supply chains are complex. They range in length, and each link births possibility of exploitation. The existence of modern slavery is a disgrace on modern society, but discovering it is essential, so that ethical businesses can implement measures to protect the vulnerable.
This week I spoke to twenty leading government suppliers, business leaders in their own right, on the issue of modern slavery and how it impacts them. The roundtable, chaired by Rt Hon Frank Field MP, allowed leaders to better understand the crime of slavery and ask the relevant questions concerning their line of work. Bringing together suppliers has been a crucial step forward in addressing slavery within the supply chain and it is my hope that this is the first of many discussions among such an influential group.
Governments are in a unique position to set standards, and so this event has proven advantageous to all. If we master supply chain governance at this level, we make space for transparency across the board. After all we cannot fight slavery if we cannot find it, or worse still, if we do not look for it.
Section 54 of the landmark Modern Slavery Act calls on businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million to show how they ensure transparency in their supply chains. Annual statements must be produced illustrating what measures are being taken by companies to combat modern slavery. If we hope to see a global reduction in this crime, implementation of Section 54 must be thought-out and thorough. The Act is not punitive, but this is no weakness; instead, it encourages investigation and open dialogue and I will support anyone working to eradicate any slave labour identified within their business.
The risk of slavery in supply chains continues to grow in this globalised economy, so businesses need to take ownership of this issue now more than ever before. We must look at success through a long-term lens of sustainable growth. We need to move away from viewing profit as the sole measure of success - no profit margin is worth a human life. Employment, recruitment and trade must be ethical, reasonable and transparent.
We need to call businesses to action, hold leaders accountable and ensure success is accredited and replicated. We cannot turn a blind eye to modern slavery; instead, we must identify, inspect and investigate supply chains if we ever hope to inhibit the culprits of this crime. It is my hope that in doing so, we ultimately create a culture that counters modern slavery, where businesses across the globe see their most valuable asset as the workers they employ.