LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — All businesses around the world have some form of slave labour in their supply chains but companies can find ways to eradicate this abuse, a senior official from Britain's biggest retailer, Tesco, said on Wednesday.
The United Nation's International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 21 million people globally are trapped in forced labour, generating $150 billion in illegal profits in the farming, fishing, mining, construction and sex industries.
Campaigners say forced labour often lurks along the supply chain with multiple suppliers in many different countries involved in manufacturing, packaging and distributing products.
"I think all corporations have slavery in their supply chains and some of those instances are absolutely horrific," Tesco's responsible sourcing director Giles Bolton said.
"Sometimes it can be the case, that the pressure of the competition can lead to some of those problems, but for the most part (businesses are) part of the solution," he told the Trust Women conference on women's rights and trafficking run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Speaking on a panel about cleaning supply chains of slave labour, Bolton said it was no good for companies to boycott countries such as Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in 2013.
The tragedy, which sparked urgent demands for global retailers to ensure the safety of workers, dealt a severe blow to the poor South Asian country where millions depend on the garment industry for an income. Up to 150,000 people lost their jobs after 220 garment factories were shut down.
"Some of the more simplistic campaigners out there are saying, 'Don't buy 10 T-shirts from Bangladesh, buy one from Italy'. Please don't do that," Bolton said, noting the garment industry had lifted millions out of poverty in Asia.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEMS
Nestle, the world's biggest maker of packaged foods with brands like KitKat bars, Perrier mineral water and Purina petfood, also used the stage to reiterate its commitment to eliminating forced labor and abuses in the supply chain.
"Being a leader in our industry... we do understand we can influence the supply chains we work with, and that's what we do," said Nestle's chief procurement officer, Marco Goncalves.
"We recognize it is a difficult issue to deal with."
Over the last five years, Nestle has identified 30,000 instances of non-compliance from Tier 1 suppliers, from health and safety issues to working condition, however Nestle had worked to resolve the majority of issues, Goncalves said.
He said less than one per cent of Nestle's suppliers have had to be eliminated from its supply chain due to non-compliance.
Since August, U.S. law firm Hagens Berman has filed two lawsuits against Nestle accusing it of importing fish-based pet food from a Thai supplier using slave labour, and importing cocoa beans from suppliers that use child labour, including children trafficked to work on farms, in Ivory Coast.
Goncalves said Nestle shared concerns about alleged child labour in the cocoa sector, but urged critics to go to cocoa farms to see the reality on the ground.
"You realize when you go on the ground that the main issue is a lack of birth certificates," he said. "If they (children) have no birth certificates, they cannot go to school."
Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam said in March that Nestle had, in the past year, updated its action plans to support women in cocoa supply chains and scored highly on workers' rights.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation launched on Wednesday a new Stop slavery Award to be conferred for the first time in 2016 to encourage companies to clean their supply chains of slavery.
British artist Anish Kapoor, who has designed the award, said it intends to recognize the "best in class" for companies leading the fight against slavery in their supply chains.
"We are on a road, but I hope a short road, to get back to the label," Kapoor told the conference.