Fresh fish being unloaded by a worker on a boat

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Sectors such as seafood may require special measures to deal with forced labour

The Walk Free Foundation recently published its Global Slavery Index, and the results were extremely troubling. In the US, more than 400,000 people are trapped in slavery, while in the UK an estimated 136,000 are forced into exploitative labour practices. In Asia, the problem is even worse, particularly in North Korea, where, shockingly, one in 10 of the population are slaves.

The WFF’s report also shed light on the products most at risk of production by forced labour. These were laptops, computers and mobile phones ($200.1bn import value), garments ($127.7bn), fish ($12.9bn), cocoa ($3.6bn) and sugarcane ($2.1bn). Modern slavery remains a complex issue that continues to be a problem in supply chains, stretching across borders and differing jurisdictions. Slavery and forced labour have socio-economic, political and commercial dimensions and therefore solutions must involve parties from the private and public sector, the investor community and representatives from NGOs.

Read more: Modern slavery referral cases rising steeply, report warns

While the results of the WFF report remind us of the severity of the problem, there is evidence of progress being achieved, primarily through collaboration. At the recent 2018 Global Forum on Responsible Recruitment and Employment in June, more than 200 delegates representing global brands, suppliers, recruitment agencies and academics gathered to discuss how best industry and government can implement the Priority Industry Principles, a set of stipulations aimed at ending exploitative labour practices.

The conference culminated in a call to action to end all forms of forced labour and witnessed the launch of a new International Labour Organization initiative, the Global Business Network on Forced Labour, encouraging joint action on issues such as modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. Industry associations have a vital role to play in bringing industry leaders together, whether it’s member CEOs, leaders of transnational organisations such as the ILO, the International Organization for Migration or government representatives. Furthermore, the Bali Process Government and Business Forum, which took place this month, also served as a driving force in encouraging change in an important economic region.

Certain sectors require a tailored approach to tackling exploitative labour practices. The seafood sector, where forced labour has historically been a problem, especially in Asia, is one such example. The strategic partnership between the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative and the CGF’s Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative aims to stamp out forced labour from the seafood industry through the development of a benchmark and recognition tool for social compliance schemes. With so many compliance guidelines available, as well as the fact that forced labour in the seafood sector spans different jurisdictions, it can be difficult for seafood businesses to select the standards most suitable for their organisation.

Elsewhere, in the cocoa sector, it has been pleasing to see ambitious human rights initiatives launched by major confectionery companies, such as Mars and Nestlé. Mars has committed to a £1bn ’Sustainable in a Generation’ plan, which aims to ensure that it upholds the rights of farmers throughout its supply chain and has undertaken a thorough audit of its factories, assessing 93% of manufacturing sites across the world. Nestlé, meanwhile, has committed to meeting a series of objectives, including stepping up its reporting in agricultural supply chains across the world and investing in new auditing schemes.

Read more: Twinings publishes full list of tea suppliers in India

Consumer goods companies clearly have a long way to go before slavery is consigned to history. The report also shows that we shouldn’t imagine forced labour to be a problem restricted to developing economies; this is an issue that is present everywhere. The private sector has a crucial role to play in monitoring their supply chains for labour rights abuses, but also in collaborating with stakeholders from the public sector and NGO community to drive positive outcomes. Only together can we overcome the difficulties posed by forced labour.

Didier Bergeret is social sustainability director at The Consumer Goods Forum