Supply Chain Lessons Learned

What does the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh in which more than 1,000 workers perished mean for those of us who are working to end modern-day slavery? For those of us focused on forced labor in supply chains, the lessons have been timely and crucial.

First, it reminds us that too many businesses do not know where their finished products are being made, even if we are talking about top-tier factories.

Second, we see that companies seeking supply-chain transparency face many challenges not of their own making.

Third, we are reminded that the audit-focused social responsibility model that most companies have adopted is inadequate even for addressing the highly visible and relatively cut-and-dried issues of health and safety, much less the complex and hidden causes of modern-day slavery.

How should we expect companies to learn from Rana Plaza and extend those lessons to address the serious but hidden issues of modern-day slavery?

• Companies should map their supply chains against known hotspots for forced labor and trafficking. These are often geographic, can be linked to specific commodities (see Verité‘s forced labour commodity atlas), and they result from the presence of labor migrants.

• When a hotspot is identified, companies are accountable for assessing the capability of partner businesses to understand and address the risks that they face. Companies should go directly to their suppliers’ workers to interview them about their experiences. Auditing will always be inadequate and can never make up for the choice of a bad business partner.

• Companies need to provide remedies. Companies are required under the UN guiding principles to remedy human rights abuses to which they contribute.

After Rana Plaza, the focus is rightfully on the first step of getting a grip on the factory system in Bangladesh and preventing another tragedy – such as fires and building collapses. But let us not ignore the continuing and largely hidden tragedy faced by millions of workers who are forced to work in appalling conditions: because they owe money to their recruiter; because their passports have been confiscated by their employers; or because their visa ties them to their job.

Companies must be accountable for these continuing problems, just as they commit to new levels of action to improve life safety for workers.

Learn more at Dan Viederman’s The Guardian article: Supply chains and forced labour after Rana Plaza: lessons learned.

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