The Commonwealth: Can It Demand 'A New Normal' From Business On Modern Slavery?
The 2018 Commonwealth Summit in London continues today against a backdrop of seemingly inconsistent thinking evident in the revelations around #Windrush and acrimonious scenes at Westminster around the UK government's decision to bomb Syria. It may well be good timing, however, for the release of a new report on modern slavery and a call to action on business. Because this is an area in which Britain has led the way, and could now continue to do so.
Walk Free, an anti-slavery organisation headed by a father and daughter team, today presents its report at Australia House in London. Along with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it estimates that 40.3 million people are living in modern slavery globally, and that by far the majority - 71% - of modern slavery victims are women.
As Julie Bishop, Australia's Foreign Minister and Andrew Forrest, Chairman of the Walk Free Foundation, launch the report, they will be praising the UK’s recent commitment to double aid spending on modern slavery to £150 million. But the report contains a call to action for further co-operation between governments and business to stand together against modern slavery, and outlines six key action areas that should be immediately addressed.
Critically, it includes new data on the performance of the Commonwealth against one of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) - specifically SDG 8.7.
Modern slavery in supply chains in well-documented, but shows little sign of easing. The introduction of the UK's Modern Slavery Act with a law passed in 2015 requires all companies with turnover of £36m or more that conduct business in the UK to report publicly on what they are doing to ensure there is no slavery in their supply chains.
While there are no sanctions for companies that do not comply, the UK has led the way in bringing the conversation into boardrooms - and in doing so, has raised the bar internationally on what is acceptable for business and its supply chain. Now Australia is looking to follow with its own Modern Slavery Act, and its public consultation closes in May.
I wrote repeatedly and often about the supply chain and the rising concerns for corporate governance around human rights and Environmental, Societal and Governance (ESG) issues for four years (2013-2017) on Forbes. Here is a relatively recent one, just before I stopped. (The entire archive is still accessible, with coverage for many NGOs - and there is no restriction on using the links to Forbes - at no personal benefit to me).
The report by Walk Free certainly benefits from the experiences of its Chairman Andrew Forrest, "one of Australia's best known business figures" and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, as detailed in this report a year ago by The Guardian,
His 'hands-on' approach to the problem of modern slavery and supply chain transparency in his own business is reflected in his comment on the Walk Free website: "It’s one thing to know about a terrible problem and not be able to fix it; it is another to know about the problem and have the means to do something about it."
So does business have the means to 'fix the problem' ? Of course it does, but to do it it needs collaboration, and for governments to push for change spurred on by the affirmation and perhaps even the leadership of civil society.
"Businesses have the power to create a new normal, in which businesses refuse to look the other way, and rather demand that their suppliers and partners uphold human rights" says the report.
It is interesting that this Walk Free #endslavery initiative uses one of the SDG's as an anchor point. Because these goals appear to be increasingly becoming part of the underpinning for a code of corporate governance - the "essence of a business" across international borders.
Take a look at the following pieces published in 2018: first, Anne Richards, CEO of M&G, recently writing on the role of investment management in society in the Financial Times.
"I would like to propose a new, standardised scorecard for measuring the performance of funds that could incorporate a range of metrics, including some or all of the following — environmental impact, carbon footprint, supply chain sustainability, social impact, and diversity and inclusion. These could, for example, align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which cover five broad, interlocking pillars — people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership" she writes.
Another woman in a position of leadership in Britain, Sacha Romanovitch, first female CEO of UK accountancy firm Grant Thornton, writes here on the role of business in an inclusive economy, also a recipe for a vibrant economy.
"For too long we have defined economic progress by reference to GDP alone, which provides too narrow a focus. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) provide a great basis for measuring an inclusive economy at global and national level. At Grant Thornton we are looking at how we can translate this to local economies" she writes.
I covered another initiative offering a new corporate governance ranking for the FTSE 350 based on inclusion earlier on Board Talk. That too, relies on SDG 8.
Conclusion ? Only that there is far more that unites us than divides us, if we choose to clarify our priorities and make them transparent - for civil society, for business, and for its supply chain.
The power lies in articulating the values we hold, and the rest is process.