Supply Chains of Even the Most Ethical Companies can be Breeding Grounds for Modern Slavery

Supply chains in this day and age are complex, usually with multiple inter-connected strands spanning continents. This means that things can be distorted when looking down from the top - especially with regard to recruitment methods and working conditions. Those at the top of the chain (usually the retailer) have no idea what is going on within the separate strands of their supply chain in relation to these operations and practices because they tend to focus on production levels and profit over fair worker treatment.

The Guardian reports that “most companies haven’t mapped beyond their tier 1 [primary] suppliers, so they have this hidden deep part of their supply chain where they are vulnerable to serious human rights allegations that they might be totally unaware of.” So although a retailer or manufacturer’s tier 1 employees seem to be content, working freely, in a safe and lawful environment, this may not be the case within the tiers lower down the supply chain.

One issue that keeps cropping up in the news is the luring, trafficking, unfair recruitment and treatment of vulnerable migrant workers. Migrants are often enticed by the promise of a job and a better life, willing to work for a price most of us would not agree to, which is why migrants are often sought after by self-serving criminals businessmen. This desire for a better living often leads people into being misled or coerced into employment, including paying high recruitment fees, incurring large debts, and putting themselves at risk of exploitation.

Sedex has outlined the top 3 indicators of deceptive or coercive recruitment:

  1. Workers being fraudulently charged fees for food, clothing, transportation, health checks, work documentation and/or supplies as part of their recruitment.
  2. Workers being required to sign blank papers, resignation letters etc., which could lead to workers being tied to terms and conditions of employment they did not consent to.
  3. Key employment terms and conditions systematically not being provided prior to employment to workers in understandable writing/in their own language as required by law.

An article in HR Magazine raised a critical point: "If a person is not directly employed by a company but is making the products or providing the services, does the company have any responsibility to ensure they are fairly treated?" Our answer to that, is of course. Although employment of these workers isn’t direct, they are part of your supply chain, adding to the success of your business, meaning they are also adding to the risk. You shouldn’t turn a blind eye to unfair practice not only because it could damage company reputation if there was an exposé but also and mainly because it’s inhumane.

Strategies and tools need to be implemented to identify and pinpoint any coercive and improper recruitment of workers as well as poor working conditions - especially now since the Modern Slavery Act is a requirement that needs to be adhered to by large businesses. Whether that’s achieved directly via the worker voice throughout the entire supply chain or on-site audits carried out by experts who are able to see past corrupt methods of disguising malpractice. The technology and resources now exist to increase visibility of problems; and businesses have not only an opportunity, but a duty, to act.


“Migrant workers are an integral part of global business yet the abusive use of migrant labour is prominent in many sectors. Businesses must come together and drive practices that empower rather than penalise the most vulnerable” - Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President for Social Impact, Unilever.