Recent news has me thinking about the prevalence of modern slavery in some supply chains. First, new research led by The University of Bath’s School of Management found that failure to monitor outsourced recruitment results in companies inadvertently employing victims of modern slavery. Interviews with experts in business, NGOs, trade unions, law firms and the police showed that while companies can increasingly trace where their products come from, many simply don’t know about the backgrounds of suppliers’ staff.


The research, conducted with the University of Sheffield, suggests that layers of outsourcing, subcontracting and informal hiring of temporary staff are to blame. This, say the researchers, enables victims of slave labor to be hidden within the workforce of companies and organizations, even those with good intentions. The researchers concluded that the key issue in tackling modern slavery is understanding the labor supply chain, which, as they note, are often unregulated networks through which contingent and sometimes forced or trafficked workers are recruited, transported and supplied to business by third-party agents.


“Companies have little hope of detecting modern slavery practices unless they adopt a new approach that focuses specifically on their labor supply chains—they need to be able to trace the origin of their employees in the same way as most now can trace their products,” says lead author, Professor Andrew Crane, Director of The University of Bath’s Centre for Business, Organizations and Society. “There has been a revolution in responsible business practices and companies have invested millions of pounds to trace the source of their products and tackle the myriad sustainability issues they found. To prevent the misery of modern slavery from blighting our workforces, companies must apply that same focus to their staff.”


Secondly, a recent Reuters story running on New York Times reports that global business leaders and politicians from 48 countries committed to ending human trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery met at a forum in Australia to expand public-private partnership to eradicate these crimes.


“It’s about accepting standard for good labor practices throughout the supply chain,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Work is also being done to raise awareness on ethical business practices and establishing a “spatial mechanism” to ensure immediate identification, processing and assistance for victims of human trafficking, Marsudi added.


And finally, a survey of supply chain professionals by CIPS (Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply) found that 34 percent of businesses required to publish a statement in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 have failed to do. Those companies are UK businesses or companies conducting business in the UK. However, since there are no legal consequences for businesses which do not complete the statement, it’s perhaps not surprising that the survey also found that 37 percent of supply chain professionals required to deliver a statement had not read the government guidance.


“The results of our survey are shocking,” says Cath Hill, CIPS director. “Legislation that was designed to be world leading has fallen at the first hurdle: compliance.”


Another key finding is that awareness of how to deal with modern slavery issues appears to have been raised by the act, says CIPS. The proportion of UK supply managers who don’t know how to handle slavery in their supply chain has fallen to 17 percent this year from 52 percent in 2015. What’s more, the number of companies who have mapped their suppliers to understand the risk and exposure to modern slavery has risen to 45 percent from 33 percent.


“While awareness of modern slavery is becoming more widespread, we need to ensure that outrage turns into action,” says Hill. “Those working in the procurement and supply chain profession have told us that without stricter policies and harsher punishments for those who are not compliant with the act, little will change.”


What are your thoughts on human trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery? Does your company know where all of its suppliers’ labor comes from?