Slavery: just a 'regrettably inevitable' aspect of business?
An estimated 30 million people worldwide are living in modern-day slavery, according to the inaugural Global Slavery Index. [AFP]

Politicians have been hesitant to tackle the issue for fear of upsetting business. What will it take for business leaders themselves to play a more central role in addressing slavery?

I recently saw a talk given by Charmian Gooch of Global Witness in which she noted the difficulties campaigners faced in the 1990s working for transparency in the oil industry's financial transactions. In 1997 a demand for such accountability was regarded as hopelessly naive. And yet by 2013 two-thirds of the oil industry is covered by such financial transparency.

Anti-Slavery International has often been accused of similar naivety, particularly in our demands that the world seek new ways of doing business, ways that regard the use of forced labour and child slavery as totally unacceptable rather than regrettably unavoidable.

Modern-day slavery isn't distant to us, we are all implicated, whether we want to be or not. We all carry mobile phones which contain the element coltan. Coltan is only available from mines in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) rife with slavery and child labour. The clothes on our backs are similarly polluted. The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, which feeds the production of many garment manufacturers is brought in each year by the forced labour of children. The mills that spin such cotton into thread in southern India are often run on the enslavement of girls and young women.

The situation is equally bad in the factories of Delhi in north India where children are routinely employed to do embroidery work. Police often raid such factories, not to resuce the children though, but rather to extract bribes from the owners.

The manslaughter, enslavement and torture of vulnerable workers in the global south, many of them children, to produce goods for the high streets of the global north is a result of business' ceaseless search for cheap production, scarce commodities or both.

Companies do social auditing of supply chains, but this is often a dubious practice. It has not led to any noticeable improvements. At best the approach is a blunt tool with only a relatively small number of inspections signalled early enough to the factories, leaving time forabuses can be covered up or temporarily discontinued until the audit is passed. At worst the approach can be corrupted with auditors filing reports of clean bills of health on factories in which abuses are commonplace. In too frequent instances the woeful and tragic inadequacy of ethical auditing has been exposed by lethal fires in factories that had been given clean bills of ethical health.

200 years ago, business played a central role in the movement to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade, sometimes acting against what was perceived to be in Britain's best economic interests because it couldn't stomach the atrocities visited on other human beings to derive those economic advantages.

In the face of the contemporary globalising systems of slavery most politicians seem caught like deer in headlights, terrified of doing anything meaningful to tackle the issue for fear of upsetting business. The political world seems averse to the idea that the state should regulate business. Today it seems rather that politicians believe that business should tell them how they should be regulated. The failure of business leaders, with a few honourable exceptions, to advocate for measures that might actually cause reductions in forced labour feeds this craven political inertia.

And so one of the most vital questions of the struggle against slavery is: what will it take for business to take a more central role in ending these violations?

Many continue to believe the myth that slavery is a thing of the past. There seems to be an increased acceptance by many of slavery and child labour practices as some regrettably inevitable aspect of international business in a globalising economy.

We have proposed businesses to adopt a proactive approach in supply chains, seeking to identify slavery and put in place the measures to end it, rather than waiting for some third party to act on abuses. This approach has been adopted by some in the cocoa sector including the US company Mondelez with its newly published child labour policy.

We have proposed government establish extra-territorial legislation to clarify business responsibilities for their supply chains and be plain about what they will be held accountable for. This would be in keeping with the philosophy behind the UK Bribery Act, which provides extra-territorial legislation to tackle a problem that is also systemic, international in scope and which individual voluntary initiatives are unlikely to be sufficient to the challenge.

However it currently seems that even more modest proposals such as compulsory reporting on the risks of slavery in supply chains may be opposed by many international business leaders, chagrined at the prospect of additional regulation.

The routine use of slavery in many of the supply chains that supply our high streets implicates us all in the crime of slavery. This will remain the case until leaders from business and politics refuse to tolerate this situation any further and regulate and legislate against it in the face of whatever opposition vested interests might pose.

Aidan McQuade is the director of Anti-Slavery International. Follow @the_mcquade on Twitter. Aidan will be speaking at the Guardian's Global Supply Chains Summit on the 11 April 2014. The event aims to encourage understanding and engagement by business and investors with forced labour and trafficking in supply chains. Apply to attend here.

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