Mystery Buyer: supply chains and slavery

BBT’s mystery buyer considers whether complacency and cost-cutting can contribute to modern slavery

The trouble with travel management conferences is that they tend to cover the same old ground – buyers are urged to focus on our duty-of-care to our travellers, suppliers whinge about the shortcomings of the request for proposal process, everyone gets hot under the collar about New Distribution 
Capability… and so on.

But I would like to see a lot more debate around the whole issue of 
‘modern slavery’.

According to the Global Slavery Index, published by the charitable organisation Walk Free Foundation, there are an estimated 45.8 million victims of this appalling crime against humanity around the world, more than 18 million of them in India alone.

Modern slavery comes in many forms. The term encompasses anything from forced labour to human trafficking, from forced marriage to child exploitation. The Walk Free Foundation defines it as involving “one person possessing or controlling another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person”.

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 dictates that companies with a group turnover of £36 million or more, doing business in the UK (they don’t have to be British), must file an annual report stating what they are doing to eradicate this exploitation.

It’s not particularly effective. As I understand, it is legally acceptable to say they aren’t doing anything – just so long as they file a report to that effect. The law urges companies to clean up their supply chains, but doesn’t appear to spell out what the penalties for failing to do so might be.

Morals and ethics
That’s the legal bit; the moral and ethical bit is rather more tricky. Surely no-one would advocate the use of forced labour, for example, but how good are we at policing our supply chains?

We blithely book our travellers into hotels around the world, but do we check on the treatment of the kitchen or housekeeping staff? How many airlines can honestly say that the baggage handlers employed by their ground handling companies are fairly treated?

The Global Slavery Index says the worst offender, in terms of the number of victims as a percentage of the population, is North Korea. Relatively few of us, I guess, have business dealings there, but India is fourth on the list (after Uzbekistan and Cambodia) and Qatar is in fifth place.

In pure numerical terms, India, China and Pakistan are the three countries where exploitation is worst. Even here in the UK, the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are nearly 12,000 victims.

A very worrying rise
What’s more, the situation appears to be getting worse. Walk Free’s 2015 report estimated there were more than 35 million ‘modern slaves’; this year, they say the figure is approaching 46 million. That may be because they have refined their calculations, but it doesn’t look good.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me there’s little legal imperative for 
corporates to tackle this issue (although laws in other countries appear 
to be much tougher). But I believe 
there is a clear moral imperative, starting with our travel supply chains.

We all want more bang for our buck, but not at any cost. If nothing else, from the corporate perspective there is reputational mileage to be made by extending our duty-of-care responsibilities to those who provide our travellers with the products and services they need.

When the Modern Slavery Act was signed into UK law, home secretary Theresa May described exploitation as a “hidden crime”. Well, it isn’t hidden any more, so let’s get it on the conference agendas and, more importantly, let’s do something about it?


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