Companies that find their products are being made using slave labour should work with suppliers to stop the abuse rather than focusing on protecting their reputations, Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner said on Monday.
Sara Thornton said many people used in forced labour were highly vulnerable and could be left with “absolutely nothing” if major firms simply chose to walk away from abusive suppliers.
“When people find issues that is a good thing,” she said during a panel discussion in London.
“From what I have seen, the best businesses would see that as an opportunity … It isn’t about cutting off the supplier, it’s working with them to improve matters.”
She spoke out after major supermarkets including Tesco, Asda and Marks and Spencer faced criticism this month for reportedly stocking vegetables supplied by a slavery ring that paid workers as little as 20 pounds ($25) per week.
About 25 million people worldwide were estimated to be trapped in forced labour in 2016, according to the International Labour Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Most large firms had some contact with slavery or forced labour within their often long and complex supply chains, said Andrew Wallis from anti-slavery charity Unseen, who urged businesses to be “open and transparent” when they found abuse.
“We’re all guilty – that’s not the issue,” he said. “It’s what are we doing and how are we getting out of this mess.”
Although many major firms might be afraid of the reputational risk that comes with admitting they have used slavery-supplied goods, Thornton argued they should use their buying power to help create positive change.
However, she urged caution on calls to sanction companies that flout a law requiring large firms to produce an annual statement outlining the actions they have taken to avoid slavery in their operations.
She said stronger civil penalties might be introduced but “criminal sanctions are not appropriate at this stage”.
Thornton, formerly one of Britain’s most senior police officers, took over as anti-slavery commissioner role in February.
She succeeded Kevin Hyland, who quit last year, saying his work been hindered by government meddling.