Side event on "Ending contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains: challenges, strategies, opportunities and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" (16 September 2015 - 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council)

On 16 September 2015, Anti-Slavery International and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights organised a side event on “Ending contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains: challenges, strategies, opportunities and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

The side event was moderated  by Ms. Natacha Foucard, Chief a.i., Groups and Accountability Section, Special Procedures Branch, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It was sponsored by the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on contemporary forms of slavery and the Permanent Missions of Australia, Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, the Niger and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the UN Office in Geneva with the support of Franciscans International, International Commission of Jurists and International Dalit Solidarity Network.

The speakers at the event included:

  • Ms. Urmila Bhoola, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences
  • H.E. Mr. Mark Matthews, Ambassador, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the UN Office in Geneva
  • Mr. Leonardo Sakamoto, Member of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on contemporary forms of slavery
  • Ms. Virginie Mahin, External Communications and Public Affairs Manager Europe, Mondelēz International
  • Mr. Benjamin Smith, Senior Officer for Corporate Social Responsibility, International Labour Organization
  • Dr. Aidan McQuade, Director, Anti-Slavery International

Ms. Bhoola mentioned some of the findings of her thematic report (A/HRC/30/35), especially strategies that have proven to be effective in identifying and ending contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains. She emphasised that it was the duty of States under international human rights law to develop legal and policy frameworks which ensure business accountability for human rights violations. She referred to legislative frameworks requiring transparency in supply chains but also emphasised the importance of multi-stakeholder public-private initiatives. She called on all relevant stakeholders, including governments, businesses, trade unions, consumers, media and other civil society actors to take steps to end slavery and slavery-like practices in supply chains, especially their prevalence in the informal economy. Referring to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, she called for the States and businesses to ensure that they comply with their respective duties and responsibilities. Ms Bhoola emphasised the need for voluntary business initiatives to go beyond codes and social audits in order to identify contemporary forms of slavery at the lowest tier of supply chains. As an important challenge in terms of combatting slavery and slavery-like practices in supply chains, she referred to access to an effective remedy for victims. Ms. Bhoola also addressed the possible opportunities within the context of the Agenda for Sustainable Development (Sustainable Development Goal 8, target 8.7), which requires development of specific targets and indicators to end modern slavery by 2030.

In his speech, Ambassador Matthews noted that according to the Global Slavery Index there are 36 million people enslaved in 167 countries. In the UK, the number of people in modern slavery amounts to an estimated 8,300 although the real numbers might be higher. Ambassador Matthews presented the recent developments in the UK, where fighting contemporary forms of slavery is the major priority, especially in relation to the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Act and the related strategy build upon the existent legal framework to fight organized crime and have a strong victim-centred approach. The Modern Slavery Act 2015, inter alia, establishes the post of an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner; increases the maximum sentence for the offences of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour to life imprisonment; introduces asset confiscation for perpetrators; and requires commercial organizations to prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year on the steps taken, if any, to ensure that these practices are not taking place. The Act’s provisions related to transparency in supply chains, which will be implemented in October, are focused on larger businesses and the Government has decided to set the threshold of revenues at £36 million per year.

Mr. Sakamoto elaborated on the important assistance provided by the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on contemporary forms of slavery to the victims, including those in supply chains. He reflected on the Brazilian experience in combatting contemporary forms of slave labour. Since 1970s, 50,000 workers have been rescued from slave labour in the country. The register of employers caught using slave labour established in 2003 by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the so called “dirty list”, has been very helpful in this regard. However, in 2014 the Supreme Court granted an injunction to an association of construction companies and the list was prohibited from being published. In response to this situation, the “transparency list” has been obtained by civil society, including Repórter Brasil (the NGO he is heading), based on the Public Information Act. Mr. Sakamoto emphasised that slave labour brings businesses competitiveness and profits, and businesses’ behaviour change only if there is a risk of economic loss. He noted that the “dirty list” has had this effect since it resulted in companies’ shares falling at the stock market. Mr. Sakamoto hailed Brazilian approach in fighting slave labour and stressed the importance of strong labour inspections lead by the government.

In her intervention, Ms. Mahin presented actions taken by Mondelēz International in addressing child labour in its cocoa supply chain. In 2012 the company, which is the world’s largest chocolate maker, launched Cocoa Life, a $400 million investment over 10 years to empower 200,000 cocoa farmers in its supply chain and reach over 1 million people. Cocoa Life is built on a holistic approach and the belief that thriving cocoa communities are at the heart of a sustainable cocoa supply chain. The company gets involved directly on the ground and addresses child labour with specific awareness raising actions and indirectly by addressing its root causes, namely poverty and a lack of development. This is done by the company’s partner non-governmental organisations, such as CARE International, which work with communities to design their own development plans and implement actions to improve farmers’ income, empower women and strengthen access to education. The impact of Cocoa Life is evaluated by independent researchers at Harvard University. In 2015, Mondelēz International hired Embode, an independent human rights consulting agency, to run assessments in three key cocoa-sourcing countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia) with a view to identify additional measures, better connections within child protection structures, and implement enhanced action plans to tackle child labour.

Mr. Smith mentioned that 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour, 5.5 million of whom are children. Of 168 million child labourers globally, 85 million are in its worst forms. They are to a large extent linked to supply chains, mostly for domestic production. What is problematic is the great discrepancy between the resources at the disposal of government enforcement agencies and those generated in illegal profits in the private economy; and the asymmetry of power between companies and workers, especially those in the rural and informal urban economies, where labour inspections are scarce and freedom of association and collective bargaining rights are largely unrealized. Supply chains audits are not solving the problem, and usually stop at the first tier. However, business is innovating, for example, in partnership with the ILO, to empower rights holders in cocoa growing communities in West Africa, to train company leaf technicians in the other crops, and through the ILO’s Fair Recruitment Initiative. The 2014 Forced Labour Protocol offers new clarity and opportunity for State collaboration with business. There is a need for greater partnership that strengthens State capacities. Mr. Smith assured the audience that ILO will foster coordinated, concerted action among a broad coalition of stakeholders to achieve target 8.7 of Sustainable Development Goals.

In his speech, Dr. McQuade referred to the role of Governments in protecting human rights and regulating business and mentioned examples of several States where this is not done in a sufficient manner. He argued that businesses have the power to assist in poverty alleviation but that they would be constrained from respecting the rights of all workers if governments were failing in their protection responsibilities. Businesses should call Governments to account when business regulation for worker protection is insufficient. He was critical of auditing as one of the approaches to ensuring business respect for human rights in supply chains since it has not shown to have an impact on reforming supply chains and protecting vulnerable workers. What is needed are independent human rights investigations aimed at detecting the problems in supply chains and addressing them. While commending the fact that the contemporary forms of slavery have received attention in the Sustainable Development Goals framework, Dr. McQuade deplored the fact that the number of children in slavery has remained unchanged at 5.5 million since 2005. This indicates the urgent need for concerted action to be taken to eradicate child slavery and all slavery. He also highlighted the importance of extending extra-territorial legislation on supply chains and strengthening the international law in this regard.

The comments and questions in the interactive debate related to the reasons behind the low number of court cases on contemporary forms of slavery in supply chains and the importance of training judiciary, prosecutors and labour inspectors with a view to increase the number and quality of criminal prosecutions. The successful Brazil example in tackling slave labour in supply chains, combining the “dirty list” with labour inspectors in a transparent process, was also discussed, as were Brazil’s plans to focus not only on domestic but also on global supply chains. Furthermore, a mention was made of new challenges, such as the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in free trade agreements and the need to monitor these types of instruments when implemented by multi-national corporations. What was stressed in the interactive debate was also the necessity of sufficient coordination of activities at the international level and between multi-national and regional activities tackling slavery and slavery-like practices in supply chains.


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Mr. Tomoya Obokata
Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences
c/o Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
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