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Modern slavery may be hidden in supply chains, but it can be rooted out – UN rights expert

International Day for the Abolition of Slavery - Wednesday 2 December 2015

GENEVA (27 November 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Urmila Bhoola, today called on States, businesses and civil society across the world to step up actions to eradicate modern slavery and other human rights violations from business supply chains.

Speaking ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, on Wednesday 2 December, Ms. Bhoola urged the international community to utilize social dialogue and create multi-stakeholder platforms as part of increased efforts to end these human rights violations.

“Slavery is often hidden, but we do know that contemporary forms of slavery such as forced labour and debt bondage are present in supply chains in numerous industries and sectors, including agriculture, garments and textiles manufacture, food processing and packaging. Modern slavery is particularly difficult to detect beyond the first tier of complicated supply chains of transnational businesses.

However, these forms of slavery can be rooted out through a multi-stakeholder and multi-faceted approach ensuring that all business operations and relationships are based on human rights, that those responsible for supply chain-related human rights violations are held accountable and that the victims are guaranteed the right to effective judicial and non-judicial remedy and appropriate and timely assistance aimed at empowering them.

My latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council focuses on the duty of States, the responsibility of businesses and the role of other stakeholders in preventing, mitigating and redressing contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains. To mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, I would like to recall some of the main findings.

States have the obligation to set out clearly the expectation that businesses domiciled in their territory and/or in their jurisdiction respect human rights throughout their operations and business relationships, including beyond the first tier of their supply chains.

I call on more States to adopt adequate legislative, regulatory and institutional frameworks for eradicating contemporary forms of slavery from supply chains, including in terms of prohibiting fraudulent and abusive recruitment practices. This needs to be followed up by effective law enforcement aimed at ensuring that those responsible are held to account.

States have an obligation under international law to guarantee to victims of business-related human rights violations (such as slavery and slavery-like practices), the right to an effective remedy, including compensation.

Unfortunately, this right remains elusive, and access to justice for victims in the context of supply chains is often constrained by legal rules that limit corporate liability, the cost and duration of legal processes, and the difficulties inherent in holding businesses accountable for human rights violations outside their area of domicile.

Governments should also put more emphasis on adequate preventive measures through tackling the root causes, including poverty, displacement, discrimination, inequality, and lack of decent work, which create vulnerability to contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains.

They should also ensure that goods are not procured from suppliers that condone or use slavery in their supply chains.

Global business should leverage the extensive capacity and resources at its disposal to address, jointly with relevant stakeholders, these root causes. Businesses can also play a key role in encouraging governments to create legal and regulatory frameworks that support transparency in supply chains.

I call on more businesses to adopt comprehensive and robust measures to comply with the responsibility to respect human rights. This can be done through undertaking human rights due diligence throughout supply chains, binding suppliers to codes of conduct and building their capacities, and ensuring that effective grievance mechanisms exist to address allegations concerning human rights violations.

As per the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses should have processes in place to enable identification of any forms of modern slavery at any level in their supply chains, and to remove these as soon as they are identified.

Independent monitoring and auditing by third parties also enables contemporary forms of slavery to be detected. Businesses should ensure that trade unions are involved as partners in these efforts.

Civil society
Stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations, the donor community, investors, consumers, trade unions, faith leaders, academia and the media, are key to holding businesses and States accountable for human rights violations in supply chains and can make a key contribution by raising awareness, building-capacity, conducting research and exposing human rights violations in supply chains.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships and public-private platforms are emerging as good practice to ensure that contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains are addressed in a holistic manner. Such initiatives have proven to be successful for instance in the tobacco and fishing industries.

It is commendable that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals in target 8.7 call for immediate and effective measures to end modern slavery. This provides the impetus that government and other stakeholders need to intensify efforts and set indicators to ensure that progress made is measureable. It is also a reminder that slavery is bad for workers, bad for business and bad for development. Its complete eradication and replacement with decent, full and productive employment for all in the context of the free exercise of their human rights, is critical if we are to preserve our humanity and our planet.”

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s report on the elimination of contemporary forms of slavery from supply chains (A/HRC/30/35):  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

Ms. Urmila Bhoola (South Africa) assumed her mandate as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences on 2 June 2014. Ms. Bhoola is an international human rights lawyer specialised in gender equality and labour law. She has 20 years of experience as a labour and human rights lawyer in South Africa and served as a Judge of the South African Labour Court for five years. She is a former Executive Director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch for the Asia Pacific (IWRAW- AP). Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Slavery/SRSlavery/Pages/SRSlaveryIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Janja Sinkovič (+41 22 928 9356/ jsinkovic@ohchr.org) or write to srslavery@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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