A staggering 21 million people are currently estimated to be victims of forced labour worldwide. Domestic work, agriculture, construction and manufacturing are among the sectors most concerned, with migrant workers being particularly vulnerable. Forced labour has evolved over time, with much of it now occurring in the private economy.
The role of the industry
Global supply chains are complex, and often involve some of the poorest countries in the world with limited institutional capacity for regulation to protect workers’ rights. Multinational companies have the ability to mainstream values along their supply chains by working with their suppliers on issues such as decent working conditions. Hence, private sector and industry collaboration is paramount in addressing forced labour.
The members of The Consumer Goods Forum are aware of this critical industry role and have already taken an ambitious step by committing to supporting the eradication of forced labour through a recent resolution. In fact, it is the first time an entire industry has publicly recognised the issue of forced labour with leading CEOs putting the issue high on their agenda. The key now is to implement this cooperative commitment to drive real change across the industry.
Tackling forced labour from a business perspective starts with a strong common message to suppliers. So the question to ask is how can companies and voluntary sustainability standards further reinforce and streamline this market signal throughout global supply chains?
Codes of conduct: Which Requirements?
One of the ways is to communicate more clearly to suppliers on which practices are not tolerated. This is typically achieved by setting social requirements in a company code of conduct that suppliers have to sign and respect. Equipped with such a code of conduct, an auditor can then visit the supplier to validate that the required social safeguards are fulfilled.
That being said, auditing social requirements remains a difficult task – especially when it comes to illegal practices such as forced labour. Forced labour is by its very nature hidden. Hence, it is not easy to detect through an audit. However, in spite of the clear challenges presented in detecting forced labour, there are certain employment practices at the supplier level which could lead to situations of labour exploitation, and should be targeted. Typical elements that buying companies can, and should, address in their sourcing policies are the implementation of safeguards against passport retention, recruitment fees that can lead to indebtedness, withholding of wages, physical or psychological coercion of workers and any restrictions on freedom of movement. Clear terms of employment need to be made available to the worker before entering into an employment relationship.
To learn more about why these practices are problematic and how they could leave workers trapped in forced labour, check out the video that the ILO and CGF recently released.
How can the Consumer Goods Forum and its Equivalence Process support your company?
The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) can and does actively support companies in addressing forced labour. Not only does the CGF raise awareness about this issue, it also helps companies and voluntary sustainability standards to double-check if their social requirements for suppliers already cover such key criteria through its GSCP Equivalence Process (EP).
We all know that codes of conduct and auditing are only one piece of the puzzle and addressing forced labour more effectively requires additional collaborative approaches that go “beyond audits”. Nevertheless, the journey starts with a clear message to all suppliers outlining practices that are not acceptable. This needs to be accompanied by robust audit procedures, competent auditors as well as meaningful mitigation and remediation measures that put the interest of the workers first should forced labour be uncovered.
The Equivalence Process benchmarking tool provides an in-depth review if key elements of a robust social compliance approach are covered. By going through the comprehensive Equivalence Process benchmarking, your code of conduct will be assessed to ensure it contains all the relevant and necessary elements on decent working conditions, including forced labour. We use international best practice as outlined in the GSCP Reference tools as the basis for the comparison.
As benchmarking experts, we currently still assess codes of conduct that make only general reference to the issue of forced labour, without mentioning more detailed safeguards as outlined above. The Equivalence Process helps to identify these gaps and verifies that robust supplier requirements are in place. Accessing results of your partner organisations and voluntary sustainability standards helps you to make sure that the sustainability standards you accept are up to date when it comes to addressing forced labour and other social compliance requirements.
This post was written and contributed by:
Vice President, ECO Canada
Equivalence Process Benchmarking Expert
President, Corinne Adam Inc.
Equivalence Process Benchmarking Expert
To learn more about the EP and its application, along with an overview of forced labour in general, join us in our session on “Ensuring Robust Forced Labour Criteria in Codes of Conduct Through Benchmarking” on Day 2 of the upcoming Sustainable Retail Summit.