COP 26 and the rise and rise of net zero

Companies tend to consider the salience of human rights issues when assessing risks in their supply chain: “A company’s salient human rights issues are those human rights that stand out because they are at risk of the most severe negative impact through the company’s activities or business relationships”, says the UN.

Perhaps one of the most salient human rights risks for companies and investors is “modern slavery”.

The International Labor Organisations (ILO) defines modern slavery as follows: “Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power”.

In the UK, addressing modern slavery was a major part of Theresa May’s short tenure as prime minister, describing modern slavery as the “great human rights issue of our time”. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires companies to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement on their website’s homepage.

While I was at PRI, PRI’s CEO, Fiona Reynolds, chaired the Liechtenstein Initiative’s Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking.

I asked Fiona Reynolds, PRI’s former CEO, about her focus on modern slavery. “When I came to the PRI, I never felt that there was enough attention on social issues from the signatory base or the PRI itself.

“While the dial has moved, I still don’t think there is enough attention on social issues. I think we still deny the scale of modern slavery and human trafficking. It is an international crisis and many of the companies we invest in and buy from exploit people for profit, sometime sadly knowingly and sometimes from a lack of due diligence on their supply chains.

“Reporting on Modern Slavery in countries like the UK, France and Australia has put a focus on modern slavery and human trafficking. More people are aware of these issues, but they do not act to the extent we need to.

“I hope that some form of mandatory human rights due diligence will be part of the answer. The issues need raising in the same way that we have elevated climate change.”

But in truth, I didn’t understand modern slavery, nor the role of investors, until reading Emily Kenway’s The Truth About Modern Slavery. Kenway is a campaigner and academic, that worked for the UK’s first anti-slavery commissioner.

Kenway concludes, “I’m about to make a statement that’ll be considered unacceptable by many, but it’s necessary: ‘rescue’ [from modern slavery] is not the best option for some people when there are no better futures for them than the exploitative conditions … This is the reality beneath the modern slavery story”.

Given the attention on modern slavery, this is a statement that goes against the grain. Modern slavery, Kenway argues, is a function of economic inequality. “In this hugely unequal global context, with brands driving down prices and accelerating order time frames, it’s logical that workers will be exploited and that some of that exploitation will be extreme.” Kenway explains “it’s purposeful business strategy to locate production in countries with low worker protections where exploitation is more likely to happen.”

In my own corporate engagement activities, I find myself faced with well-known brands, like Amazon or Tesla, that refuse to recognise trade unions or push back against raises to minimum wages. “The system that produces precarious workers, a lack of rights protections, relative impunity for employers and brands and so on, is the same system that produces the really awful cases our headlines report as slavery”, says Kenway. “Modern slavery is not a separate phenomenon from general working conditions”.

“If we are talking about legal ownership of another human being … then yes, slavery by large was ended in the nineteenth century. But if we are talking about exploitation in terms of being ‘modern slavery’, there is nothing modern about it … it is the continuation of exploitation by subtler means …” It has “never been something with which nation-states have a problem; rather, it has been something they have created and perpetuated actively because it brings profit.”

If shareholder capitalism, and the economic inequality it causes, is the root of what we call modern slavery, what, if anything, should shareholder capitalists do?

Kenway would do away with the modern slavery framing – not to say that slavery-like conditions do not exist, but rather that the modern slavery framing, with policymakers, investors, companies and NGOs as the “great liberators” is not just unhelpful, but counterproductive. Kenway’s arguments are compelling and at their heart is system change, ending her book with, “In doing so, we would lose our fairy tales, but we would gain a better reality.”

To accept Kenway’s arguments would be for investors to redirect their attention to issues such as inequality, erosion of social safety nets or redistributive tax policy. This is not the path investors have followed.

I think Kenway helps put modern slavery in context, a symptom, not a cause.

The ILO and Walk Free estimate that 49.6 million people are in modern slavery. It’s an extraordinary statistic. That’s one in every 152 people. It’s impossible to divest from modern slavery, it’s too prevalent.

There is increasing regulation too. While regulation tends to require disclosure, for repeat offenders, this may lead to a ban.

Investors would tend to engage companies assessing the likelihood of modern slavery based on vulnerability of workforce, supply chain geography, and in particular, exposure to conflict or mass migration, products and business models. The more proficient investors would engage policymakers too.

But the more effective action, in my view, would be to address the causes of modern slavery – perhaps starting by thinking about how investors can address inequality.

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