A new roadmap for the private sector's fight against modern slavery

A screencap from the Business Pledge Against Modern Slavery promotional video. Via YouTube

BANGKOK — A new pledge and corresponding roadmap is set to boost the private sector’s ability to help end human trafficking and forced labor in supply chains. While many initiatives stress the moral imperative for corporations to take the lead in fighting this global crime, the Mekong Club’s business pledge takes a supportive, practical approach, explained the Hong Kong-based antislavery NGO’s Program Director Silvia Mera.

The “Business Pledge against Modern Slavery” declares a unified commitment to help end modern slavery across Asia, a region that accounts for the largest number of forced laborers — 15.4 million, or 62 percent of the global total. It also promotes the sharing of relevant information to inform business decisions, promote training, and contribute to the development of tools to help prevent and address these crimes.

But simply signing on isn’t where the work stops for large apparel and footwear companies such as VF Corporation, Clarks, and Adidas, which are among the 10 companies that have promised to step up their efforts with the help of Mekong Club. Through regular consultations with the private sector and other stakeholders that have previously tried to create pledges, Mera came to the conclusion that “companies say ‘yes, I pledge,’ and then you don't have a mechanism to understand what they're actually doing to support these declarations.”

As a result, companies that sign onto Mekong Club’s business pledge agree to undergo a self-assessment covering various aspects of their antislavery efforts, from awareness raising to risk assessment, to capacity building and mentoring. Within each category, companies have to share whether they are already active in certain areas, or what plans they have to cover them in the near future, and score points accordingly. Along the way, Mekong Club makes their experts available to help companies develop internal policies and practices.

“While doing this exercise, we also realized that some companies didn't really know where to start,” Mera said. She worked with one corporation, for example, that was investing most of its resources into factory audits. Another company, meanwhile, was far more focused on first training its auditors to detect potential cases of forced labor and trafficking.

“So the first company said, ‘oh … if we invest heavily in audits, but we haven't given the auditors the tools to actually identify suspicious situations in production, we're wasting our money.’”

Mekong Club’s close relationships and regular meetings with the private sector allowed them to collate best practices and provide the most logical sequence of steps companies in different industries — from banking to manufacturing — should take to tackle the issue while using their resources most efficiently. Even if they don’t take advantage of these resources, “they also need to sit down with our team once a year and go through a sort of verification of what they're doing,” Mera said.

For apparel and footwear manufacturing giant VF — which houses brands such as The North Face, Eagle Creek, and Timberland — the help in gaining momentum is one of the most crucial aspects of the pledge, according to Kyle Bogler, general compliance manager for VF in Asia. The other is that Mekong Club is not out to shame companies into doing better.

“That's the greatest part about the pledge in my opinion, is that [Mekong Club] understand[s] that we're not perfect,” Bogler said. “And they're not punishing, they're not trying to ‘name and shame’ companies for not being perfect. They're saying, ‘we want to help companies that are committed to this cause.’”

The $12 billion apparel powerhouse has always conducted audits of its thousands of contracted factories, Bogler said, but it still considers itself in the early design phase of a “holistic approach” to eradicate forced labor from its supply chain. The checklist Mekong Club provides is “a great roadmap to move us forward,” Bogler said. The company is currently focused on awareness raising, sharing the business pledge with all employees, and sending updated internal guidelines on employment and proper working conditions to its factories.

With over 70,000 staff, about 150 of whom are dedicated to aspects of compliance and responsible sourcing, it’s no small feat, Bogler said. But his engagement with Mekong Club has also opened up networking opportunities with other brands working to address the same issues.

“I wish I had a roadmap that told me how to completely get rid of forced labor in my supply chain. But there is no roadmap. So it's going to be through your failures and through your attempts that you start to make progress on this,” Bogler said. “And other brands as well, as they fail or have successes ... Hopefully we're able to share that and move forward as an industry.”

VF is currently working on a pilot project with an NGO in Vietnam to educate factory staff about recruiting tactics and dangers to be aware of if approached by a labor broker. These are the types of initiatives Bogler hopes to roll out more widely in months and years to come, he said.

Looking at the bigger picture, Mekong Club’s pledge and corresponding checklist could help companies comply as governments start to require evidence of stronger antislavery efforts. Several of the checklist items around “awareness,” for example, correspond to the requirements of bills passed by the United Kingdom and France in recent years, requiring corporations to develop a public statement outlining their intent to combat modern slavery.

Mekong Club has attached a scoring mechanism to a company’s completion of checklist items. In 2019, the NGO will release an aggregate score to show how the business sector is doing when it comes to actions such as establishing a process to discuss modern slavery at board level, conducting audits to assess forced labor, and dedicating resources to training for departments exposed to the risk of modern slavery. Individual company’s scores won’t be made public.

“The score is something that of course is important because we want to benchmark the industry, but mostly we want to sit down with you and offer advice,” Mera said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.