Corporations: The New Abolitionists

I applaud the abolitionists of the past for contributing to the legal abolition of slavery. However, despite their efforts, slavery has persisted, expanding beyond our narrow Western definition that is cloistered in 18th and 19th century America to include human trafficking, sexual slavery, debt bondage and forced labour.

Today, 27 million slaves exist[i]. They exist in all cultures and ethnicities. And most importantly, the price of slaves has decreased substantially in comparison to the price paid for slaves in the past. The result: high profits and a disposable and easily replaced production input.

However, corporations are in a position to lead the fight against this persistent evil.  In the minds of consumers, the role of the corporation has shifted to include a social and ethical profile.  According to Stuart L. Hart, “Business—more than either government or civil society– is equipped at this point in history to lead us toward a sustainable world in years ahead.  Corporations are the only entities in the world today with the technology, resources, capacity and global reach.”[ii]

Further, corporations not only possess the means to fight modern-day slavery but have a responsibility as well.  Throughout history and even today slavery has maintained its ties to the business world.  A recent example is the charcoal farms in Brazil that employ forced labour. The charcoal produced is linked to the supply chains of major US, Europe and Japan car manufacturers. A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicates that as corporations seek to increase margins by pursuing low cost suppliers, those same suppliers may resort to the use of slaves to ensure low prices[iii].

So how can corporations prevent the use of slave labour from being apart of their supply chain?

Recently in 2015, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, launched a Stop Slavery Award to recognize companies who proactively take steps to remove forced labor from their supply chains.  One of the recipients is Hewlett Packard Enterprise which has a labor force of over 300,000. Media attention highlighted the growing risk of forced labor in its Southeast Asia operations. The company hosted a series of anti-trafficking workshops with suppliers and labor agencies within the region to address this concern.

The examples above demonstrate how a corporation whether through its philanthropic arm or relationship with suppliers and government agencies can become global abolitionists.

But how many corporations will take up this role? The growing popularity of CSR and sustainability in the past decade, along with the 2008 financial crisis and other corporate scandals have forced numerous corporations to incorporate new processes and programs into their structure. Is the fight against modern-day slavery another CSR expense without a real commitment from business? Or can a business case be made for corporations becoming abolitionists?

[i] Bales, K. (2005). Understanding Global Slavery. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[ii] Hart, S. L. (2007). Capitalism at the Cross Roads. Upper Saddle River: Wharton School Publishing

[iii] International Labour Organisation. (2008). Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labour. Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labour. Atlanta: International Labour Organisation

Originally published on the author’s blog The New Abolitionist.

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