The global supply chain is what enables us to access products from all over the world. Whether it’s cell phones and other forms of technology, food, or clothes, many of these products are made in one country, with materials from another and then shipped to a final destination for sale.
What many consumers don’t know, however, is how these products are made, or who makes them. For example, the production of a cell phone may begin in a mine in Africa with people working under bonded labour extracting the resources which are then sent to factories in east Asia where workers are forced to work incredibly long hours, in poor conditions with little pay.
Alternatively, take the cocoa industry where, in some cases, it's harvested by children who are forced to work without pay which leads to a bigger problem of children being trafficked from neighbouring conflict zones in order to work on the coffee plantations.
The reason some supply chains become targets for exploitation is due to the emergence of ‘governance gaps’ created by rogue states, or governments that provide little or no regulation as a way to attract investment and promote trade. These gaps present a huge moral and ethical dilemma that consumers all over the world would wish to solve.
Long-term human rights activist Auret van Heerden, former head of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), has spent his career fighting to establish a practical way of approaching human rights and persuading corporations to protect labour in global supply chains. He believes that the key to solving the issue of exploitation and ensuring trade is inclusive and fair, is establishing accountability.
At present, most of the companies involved in exploitative supply chains don't have any way of assuring consumers that a product was made without the use of such labour. The FLA work at a national level, in around 60 countries to help government regulate production. Compiling audits and spot checks to establish credibility and reliability of their data.
Yet, the key problem in ensuring accountability across a global supply chain is that, by its very nature, it is supranational and therefore if one particular government fails to regulate production or manufacture properly, the product becomes vulnerable to being the cause of further exploitation and inequality. The FLA believe that if we're going to ensure the delivery of the key public goods at an international level, we have to come up with a different mechanism.
In some cases, these structures already exist.
For example, in the 1990s, a series of child labour, forced labour, serious health and safety abuses scandals concerning the production of brand name goods in the U.S forced the government to make a change. In 1996 President Clinton invited industry, human rights NGOs, trade unions and the Department of Labor, to discuss how to avoid “globalisation becoming a race to the bottom.”
Together, they formed a White House task force to agree how to manage the responsibility of the global supply chain. They agreed on a common set of standards and a code of conduct that could be applied throughout the global supply chain regardless of ownership or control, making sure it formed part of all contracts.
These contracts, held between major multinational brands and suppliers throughout the developing world, have been found to be more persuasive than the local labour laws, regulations and local human rights standards. This is because, where there is potential for a local inspector to be bribed, there is potential for all local regulations to fall down or be avoided. Yet if a multinational contract is at stake, there seemed to be greater appetite to behave ethically.
In essence, the agreement harnessed the power and the influence of the multinational company - the true power of the global supply chain – encouraging them to use their power for good. In doing so, public goods should be able to be delivered around the world promoting equality, inclusivity and protecting human rights in a way that enables all areas of global economies to thrive.
In order to create a world in which inclusive trade is nurtured and allowed to thrive, we must work towards a globally recognised set of standards accepted by all levels of the global supply chain, that serve to protect the safety of the workers, safeguard the environment, and protect the trust of end customers. By treating every link in a chain with respect, industries will be able to increase its contribution to local economies and as a worldwide chain, it is then possible to foster global prosperity.
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