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  • gianlucariglietti

Modern slavery: a matter of choice.

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

It only takes a quick Google search to find several initiatives that are dedicated to fighting modern slavery and forced labour. It also takes a quick Google search to realize that the fight is far from over. The civil society is always going to have a hard time addressing the endless facets of this challenge if there is no true allyship with private organizations and governments. It is indeed true that the problem and the solution here share some common features, which can make or break modern slavery. For instance, government support is key to protecting workers from forced labour; however, a corrupted administration is one of the greatest boosts for criminals. Similarly, different NOGs and governments can connect to bring a stronger fight, but at the same time the international nature of organized crime is also an advantage for the bad guys. Similarly, customers might pay attention to the origins of the products they buy or, even without realising it, they might support unethical brands. This means every actor involved in this process should feel empowered to bring real change, because the bright side of an interconnected world is that choices matter and do have an impact. So, the real question is: what choices have we made so far?


There have been several international initiatives from transnational organizations to call for stricter measures on modern slavery. These date as far back as 1930, with the e ILO Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (last updated in 2014) that recommends states consult with businesses to develop anti-slavery measures. Similarly, the OECD and the European Union have been trying to increase pressure on member states to create and enforce domestic measures, which has produced results to some extent. The UK Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act are two such examples[1]. These two regulations require businesses to disclose their arrangements on the matter, through a public statement.

However, the problem with this approach is that there are no real sanctions for those who do not comply, which undermines the very success of the initiative. According to the Modern Slavery Registry, companies meeting the minimum levels of compliance as of 2020 stood only at 30%[2]. Looking even more in-depth, it is possible to appreciate how most of the FTSE 100 companies, even if technically compliant, only report generic measures that do not provide any details on how they are actually addressing the issue[3]. Greenwashing at its finest.


To get a grasp of the effectiveness of disclosure statements related to modern slavery, it is interesting to look at a study carried out on the Modern Slavery Act. Researchers found out that nearly one-third of the 101 examined had not even been signed by top management, which makes you wonder about the level of commitment of top executives in such policies. Further, most proposed measures addressed some of the impact of modern slavery but not the root cause, such as procuring safer equipment but without mentioning real investigations on why safety was not guaranteed in the first place[4].

Further independent investigations by NGOs and private companies have also revealed how certain sectors such as ICT, food and retail show rather low levels of compliance[5]. Especially those that have to procure technology components or food ingredients from different regions are at a higher risk of incurring in modern slavery practices. It is hard to say to what extent the focal companies are aware of what is happening in their supply network, but it is clear that many do not put in their best effort to find out.

From an investor’s perspective, however, if there is need to get a better picture of the practices of a specific company, there are useful tool available for scrutiny. One of these is KnowTheChain, a not-for-profit that drafts rankings and scorecards on businesses and industry sectors. Similarly, the now-elapsed Modern Slavery Registry includes all the statements published by companies in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act. The Registry is updated as of 2020, while new statements should be directly collected and published by the UK government.


Customers are a key actor in this scenario, as they make daily choices that shape the industry for better or worse. Interestingly, current research shows contrasting evidence about consumer habits when it comes to sustainability. Some surveys report that there is a difference between those who wish to buy sustainable products and those who actually do so, revealing some sort of intention/action gap[6]. On the other hand, the data also indicates that customer are choosing more ethically than in the past, thus some improvement seems to be effectively on the way[7].

Obviously, it all comes down to how persuasive sustainable policies are (including those anti-modern slavery), which means building sound awareness programmes and communicating clearly to the public which brands are making a real effort in this sense. Shaping behaviour is a tough job of course, but there are some techniques that have proven effective in the past, when combined with effective communications. For instance, social pressure can be leveraged to boost positive actions. Showing that your community and the people around you care for sustainable policies can make you change your habits too. To make this work, it is important that the emotional sphere is engaged, since simply laying out the facts is not likely to be a successful strategy in the long term[8].

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

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