By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Feb 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Whether it is high street fashion, bedding from a department store or eggs from a supermarket, few British shoppers would stop to ask whether slave labour was involved in making their goods.
Yet forced labour often lurks along the supply chain as a product and its individual parts are manufactured, packaged and distributed in a process linking multiple suppliers in many different countries, business ethics experts say.
Take a T-shirt, for example. Before it hits the shelves, many pairs of hands will have picked the cotton, cleaned and compressed it into bales, spun and woven it into thread then cut, stitched, sewn, labelled, ironed and packaged it.
Globally, the International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are victims of forced labour. In Britain alone, the Home Office (interior ministry) says up to 13,000 people are forced into manual labour, sold for sex in brothels, or kept in domestic servitude, among other forms of slavery.
A government-backed draft law aims to tackle exploitation by requiring businesses in Britain to disclose what action they have taken to ensure their supply chains are slavery free.
But does the legislation go far enough?
The clause in the Modern Slavery Bill, expected to become law before elections in May, is a step in the right direction but "weak and needs to be strengthened" said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of trade unions, firms and charities promoting workers' rights.
"Unless the legislation actually states what reporting should require, then any company can say anything about what they're doing," Berman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The clause will provide guidance to companies about the kind of information they could disclose. However, the Home Office said firms will not be told what must be included, and that it expects disclosures to differ from company to company.
"Companies who take the issue seriously could be undercut by those that simply tick a box and make a glib statement on their website, without considering the workers at all," Berman said.
Another flaw in the bill is the lack of a regulatory body to monitor whether the transparency clause is enforced, she said.
The government should grant industry watchdogs the power to investigate workplaces, report cases of modern slavery and prosecute firms and employers for crimes committed, she added.
Livia Firth, a champion of sustainable fashion and founder of Eco-Age brand consultancy, said the transparency clause was fundamental, but questioned its impact on the fashion industry.
Most companies in the clothing business have very little transparency in their supply chains, Firth said.
"Most of the time they delegate responsibilities on factory owners so that they don't have to be in charge directly, which is what has allowed modern day slavery to be so widespread," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A major unresolved issue is defining the turnover threshold at which companies would be required to comply with the clause.
The Home Office launched a consultation with businesses earlier this month to discuss where the threshold should be.
Philippa Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics, said a focus on larger companies could have a trickle-down effect and cut out the most extreme cases of slavery.
"The larger companies will demand that the smaller companies, where the problems typically occur, take action," Back told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But she questioned how far one business could investigate another to check for cases of forced labour.
"It only takes one or two companies down the supply chain who think 'I'll just say yes, no one will check,' - that's the danger," Back said.
Mark Robertson, spokesman for Sedex, an organisation working to improve business practices in supply chains, said bigger companies may deal with tens of thousands of suppliers, across sectors known to be at high risk of slavery.
Companies must be aware of which parts of the supply chain pose the greatest risk, such as subcontracted facilities.
DO CONSUMERS CARE?
Consumers hold the key to real change, campaigners say.
Since the 2013 collapse of an eight-storey factory in Bangladesh, killing 1,129 people, most of them garment workers, campaigns demanding better working conditions have gathered momentum.
"Much more information is now available on the internet and social networks, which goes viral and exposes some of the abuse going on," said Berman from the Ethical Trading Initiative.
"Consumers are increasingly outraged about it. They want to know that retailers and brands are doing what they need to do."
But a desire for ever cheaper, faster fashion hurts efforts to ensure workers' rights, said Firth from Eco-Age.
"Today the consumer is completely detached from the clothes he or she wears and from who makes them," she said. "It happens far away so we don't see it... Out of sight, out of mind." (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Ros Russell)
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