Modern slavery: How many slaves work for you?

By Lynne Yryku June 16, 201716 June 2017

Modern slavery: How many slaves work for you?

Image credit: Walk Free Foundation


Freedom is one of the fundamental values in Canadian society. However, almost 50 million people are in some form of modern slavery around the world—including in Canada. As it is often hidden in a vast range of supply chains, a long way from where goods are sold, most of us are unknowingly benefitting from modern slavery in the products we buy, suppliers we hire and companies in which we invest.

To bring more attention to this evil said to be hiding in plain sight, the International Commission of Jurists Canadian Section hosted the panel, “Modern Slavery in Supply Chains: Trends in Global Corporate Liability and Legislation,” in conjunction with the CCCA. Led by leading global legal experts, the pressing global problem of exploitative labour in supply chains, the role of business in addressing forced labour, and legislative responses to address the problem were discussed.

Panelists included Ruth Dearnley, CEO of Stop the Traffik; Jonathan Drimmer, VP & Deputy GC at Barrick Gold Corp.; Mora Johnson, Barrister & Solicitor and Former Chair of the OECD Forum on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains; Kevin McGurgan, British Consul General and Director-General for UK Trade & Investment in Canada; Peter Talibart, Managing Partner of Seyfarth Shaw LLP (U.K.); Mark Trachuk, Partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

A global crime

Modern slavery, also called human trafficking, refers to the recruitment or movement of persons for the purposes of exploitation—situations where one person has taken away another person’s freedom to control their body or to choose to refuse certain work or stop working in order to exploit them. They do so through threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power and deception. It affects almost every sector, industry and company.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries. It is an extraordinarily profitable crime: the United Nations says modern slavery and trafficking is now the second-largest source of illegal income worldwide, with the International Labour Organization putting annual profits at least US$150 billion. However, due to the hidden and illegal nature of modern slavery, gathering statistics is difficult and these estimates may underrepresent the scale of the problem.

“We know more about the quality of the wood in our chairs than we do about the health and safety and security of the men, women and children who made them,” stated Talibart. “That’s obscene but that is where we are.”

The potential of this heinous crime is huge, explained Dearnley, as the product is the man, woman or child—which can be moved around for various money-making endeavours. It is a seriously organized business, most of which we on the outside do not understand, and the proceeds flow through legitimate operations, making it hard to disrupt and prevent.

She explained that trafficking can only be prevented when we work together. At the community level, people must understand what trafficking is, how it affects them and what they can do about it. At the global level, businesses and consumers must be aware of how trafficking impacts the supply chains of businesses worldwide and be supported in their change efforts. Her organization gathers information from individuals and stakeholders around the world on how and where trafficking is taking place, and shares this knowledge generously to enable individuals and companies to take action.

Signs of progress

This crime does not just affect third-world workers, pointed out McGurgan. For instance, between 10,000 and 13,000 are victims in the U.K., with U.K. nationals being the fifth most common: “Not all victims are trafficked across borders; some are homegrown. But all of them are exploited.”

Building on the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 gives law enforcement tools to combat this crime and victims the protection they need to come forward. For companies, the Act includes a transparency in supply chains provision. Any business that has a global turnover of US$50 million or more and supplies goods or services in the U.K. has to publish in a “prominent” place on its website every year a slavery and trafficking statement outlining the steps it has taken to ensure there is no slavery in any part of its business, including its supply chains. Foreign companies and subsidiaries that “carry on a business” in the U.K. will also have to comply with the new legislation.

While progress was made in the first year, with 289 offences prosecuted in 2015 and a 40% increase in the number of victims identified by the State, said McGurgan, there is still a long way to go.

However, the way the law is set up is hopeful, explained Talibart, as the transparency statement is out in the marketplace, making a company accountable to consumers and shareholders. Further, the approvals have to be signed off on by the Board, bringing the issue of modern slavery into the boardroom.

Bringing it home

Whether or not your company is affected by the Act, this is an international issue and international action is required—a fantastic opportunity for Canada to take the lead, according to Talibart.

In 2003, Canada was among the first countries to ratify the United Nations Protocol to Prevent,

Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, and in 2012, the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking was established.

As there is no specific legislation pending, Trachuk said this issue may be more effectively addressed within the regimes we already have, such as our securities laws and instruments. For example, national policies and corporate governance guidelines already require codes of conduct and cover ethical matters like conflicts of interest, proper use of assets, fair dealings with suppliers and reporting of any illegal or unethical behaviour; transparency in supply chains and the assessment of this transparency could also be included.

At the individual organization level, the CBA adopted the Model Business Principles on Forced Labour, Labour Trafficking and Illegal or Harmful Child Labour in 2016. The document offers commentary and guidance on the four model principles, providing a consistent framework for businesses looking to develop and implement a code of conduct to address labour abuses. The principles are designed to help in-house and external counsel encourage their business clients to guard against such abuses in their operations.

Modern slavery is a serious and pressing issue affecting millions around the world. While efforts to combat it are increasing, the grim reality is that the human trafficking still exists—and is on the rise. Your organization can move out of the grey area by taking action now, keeping up the momentum to tackle this issue.

Lynne Yryku is the Executive Editor of CCCA Magazine. This article was initially published in the Summer 2017 issue of CCCA Magazine.

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