G20 and Modern Slavery: What next?

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

"President Trump's Trip to Germany and the G20 Summit" by The White House licensed under public domain.

A strange but useful unity emerges to eliminate child labour and modern slavery.

Politics may be the art of the possible. It is also the art of the necessary. And with public trust in markets draining away, G20 Leaders, last Saturday, sought to show their commitment to an “inclusive, fair and sustainable globalisation” by putting welcome emphasis on workers’ rights and conditions.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, recently said “Citizens in rich and poorer economies are facing heightened uncertainty and stalled or declining prosperity, and lamenting a loss of control……Rather than a new golden era, globalisation is associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities.”

Responsible governments and businesses are coming to realise they must now act to humanise markets, or expect further public disenchantment and more radical calls for transformation.

The 2016 Edelman Global Trust Barometer also highlighted that the public increasingly associates technological innovation with the destruction of jobs, livelihoods and identities. They doubt governments are willing to regulate innovation to direct it to the common good.

Responsible governments and businesses are coming to realise they must now act to humanise markets, or expect further public disenchantment and more radical calls for transformation, both from the progressive left and authoritarian populist rights.

This is why G20 heads of state, led by their Chair, Angela Merkel and her government, focused on workers in global supply chains. They committed to “eliminate child labour by 2025, human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery” and emphasised that “fair and decent wages as well as social dialogue are other key components of sustainable and inclusive global supply chains.”

If the G20 leaders are serious about ending modern slavery and securing fair and decent wages, there are clear and existing policies they could collectively deliver.

These are big promises in areas with a track-record of lamentable failure: virtually every global supply chain now has modern slavery within it, and wages have stagnated or shrunk, in real terms, in many countries South and North, especially since the Great Recession.

But there is good news: if the G20 leaders are serious about ending modern slavery and securing fair and decent wages, it is not rocket science. There are clear and existing policies they could collectively deliver. Acting together, G20 states would make a profound difference.

Take just one of these promises – modern slavery: the G20, with leadership from the German Government, and the Argentine Chair for 2018, could build an international agreement between like-minded governments for a harmonised standard of national legislations on slavery. This is not hard, if the political will exists. Governments of good-will can simply bring together their existing best practice into a coherent whole. Four key areas for action are crying out to be adopted by governments:

Mandatory Transparency: the UK Modern Slavery Act demands a compliance statement on modern slavery from any company with turn-over above £36 million who wants action in the UK market. The statement has to be approved by the Board, signed by a director, and have a link on the company’s homepage. The Act still requires an enforcement mechanism.

Mandatory Due Diligence: the US Department of Labour identifies 135 commodities produced in particular countries as at high risk of being produced by child or forced labour. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act insists that an importer of these goods must be able to demonstrate these goods were not produced by child or forced labour, otherwise they may be impounded at port (and three consignments have been). The French Duty of Vigilance Law demands the largest companies establish and implement a plan to mitigate and prevent major human rights risks, including egregious risks such as modern slavery.

Incentives for Responsible Business: public procurement by the EU and USA is worth billions of euros and dollars. The least states can do is ensure that the goods and services they buy are from companies that abide by the international standards on labour rights which the governments themselves have signed up to – including the ILO Convention on Forced Labour (which many more countries should ratify). This is what the USA’s Federal Acquisition Regulation requires. The same principle goes for Export Credit Guarantees – why would tax-payers’ money go to companies that do not demonstrate care and vigilance to eliminate slavery from their supply chains and operations?

Access to Remedy: the G20 also say “we support access to remedy” but much more could be done to ensure the security of trafficked workers who fear they will be summarily deported if they reveal their slavery to the police. Equally there needs to be far more access to the functioning courts of G20 countries for victims caught in the international supply chains of G20 companies (there’s often not much remedy to be found in the paralysed and corrupt judicial systems of countries where modern slavery is rife). 

Alongside government action, a great deal more needs to be done by companies themselves to eliminate slavery. There are leading companies in all three sectors - clothing brands, IT, and food and beverage - we have ranked as KnowTheChain, with Humanity United and Verité. But there are also many more laggards whose irresponsible behaviour towards victims of slavery in their supply chain would be challenged by concerted G20 action. Equally, the laggards can learn quickly from the leaders such as adidas, HP and Unilever.

G20 leaders, and the German Government especially, are to be commended for clear support for improving workers’ rights and conditions, and eliminating child and forced labour. 

Finally, the G20 looked divided this weekend. But a strange and useful unity emerged to eliminate child labour and modern slavery. That’s perhaps because this issue is a concern both for international liberals, like Merkel, who believe slavery diminishes us all and brings global markets into disrepute; and to chauvinist nationalists, like Trump, who want to be seen to protect US workers from ‘unfair competition’ from trafficked migrants and refugees.

G20 leaders, and the German Government especially, are to be commended for clear support for improving workers’ rights and conditions, and eliminating child and forced labour. The growing global movement to eliminate modern slavery will hold the G20 to these promises.

This blog is part of an ongoing series encouraging dialogue on, and raising the visibility of the G20 Summit as a business and human rights opportunity.