William Eichler 22 March 2017

Tackling modern slavery with supply chain transparency

The Bristol of today was built on the wealth produced by the Transatlantic slave trade of yesterday. As a port city, it did well out of the large-scale kidnapping of Africans as they were shipped to the Caribbean and forced to labour on plantations.

The southwestern city is today, however, at the centre of a push to fight the inhuman trade’s modern equivalent thanks to Bristol resident and founder of the social enterprise Semantrica, Jaya Chakrabarti and her open public database, tiscreport.org.

The abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century suppressed this barbaric trade in one form. However, the twenty-first century has its own versions. Forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation – all involve enslavement and exploitation, and all are alive and well.

One of the challenges in tackling the practice is its existence in supply chains. In an increasingly interconnected world it is difficult to know whether a product or service is, in some indirect way, dependent on slave labour.

In an attempt to remedy this, section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires all companies and groups with a turnover of over £36m to ‘prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year’. These are then published on their websites.

The aim of tiscreport.org is to bring all of these reports under one roof so that they can be easily accessed by anyone wishing to search for a company’s anti-slavery information. It is the world's largest open data registry committed to ending modern slavery, joining up Transparency In Supply Chains (TISC) reporting globally.

While TISC reporting mostly affects private companies with a high turnover, Ms Chakrabarti tells me other organisations are showing an interest in following suit. ‘We’re seeing more suppliers below the threshold [£36m] are looking to increase their visibility with organisations that have this requirement and so the demand for a transparent supplier is starting to increase,’ she explains.

This includes local authorities, who are becoming more conscious of the need to fight modern slavery. ‘Many councils are already saying, “We need a statement”, and so the councils that we’ve been talking to have said, “look, we’re going to have a statement, but what else can we do?” says Ms Chakrabarti.

The City of Bristol is one council that is looking to go further to tackle slavery. Ms Chakrabarti, who was honoured with an MBE ‘for services to the Creative Digital Industries and the community in Bristol', explains that she has been working with Bristol in order to make tiscreport.org more useful to local authorities.

‘When I said this is what we’re doing, the leader at the time and Marvin, who’s our mayor now, both said, “look, we’ve got to do something about this”,’ she tells me. ‘We can change the narrative because its all very well saying we were built on slavery but its still raging right now. It’s what we do now that makes a difference and so its pretty inspiring to know they are going to grab this and bring it forward.’

In a statement on Bristol’s involvement with tiscreport.org, Marvin Rees, the city’s elected mayor, said: ‘Transparency in supply chains starts with transparency of actions taken, and I will ensure that all council procurement requires that suppliers required to comply [with the Modern Slavery Act 2015] submit their anti-slavery statements to tiscreport.org.’

‘Our city was built through the sacrifices of victims of the Transatlantic slave trade,’ he continued. ‘But together with Bristol's business community we will ensure that slavery has no place to hide in our city.’

The City of Bristol is not the only public body attempting to lead the way in this area. The Welsh government, too, is making a push for further transparency in Welsh public sector supply chains.

On 9 March they launched the Code Of Practice on Ethical Employment in Supply Chains. In his ministerial foreword to the code, the secretary for finance and local government Mark Drakeford wrote: ‘The Welsh public sector spends around £6bn every year on goods, services and works involving international supply chains… It is therefore vital that, at every stage, there are good employment practices for the millions of employees.’

To this end, the Welsh government has partnered with tiscreport.org and is attempting to encourage all organisations to become more aware of modern slavery. At the launch for the Code of Practice, Mr Drakeford said: ‘I expect all public sector bodies in Wales, Welsh businesses and suppliers to the Welsh public sector to sign up to this code. It is only by working together that we can help deliver a better, and crucially, a fairer deal for workers in our supply chains in Wales and throughout the world.’

‘It’s incredibly inspiring to be working with the Welsh government team, knowing of their ambitions to make a real difference in ending exploitation within supply chains,’ Ms Chakrabarti says. ‘We were invited to input into their Code of Practice from our tech perspective, and are really excited about bringing it to life through tiscreport.’

She notes the Welsh government team had some ‘really good ideas’ about how to make it easier for administrators at every level to check and encourage compliance with the Code: ‘Once we’ve trialled this with Wales co-designing with us, we’ll be able to offer it to other regional governments and states/provinces globally.’

The registry itself is self-funding. It requires no charitable donations to operate and no public funds from the Government. It is funded by commercial membership fees and donations from organisations uploading reports to the tiscreport site. 50% of the proceeds of membership fees are donated to enabling frontline services combat modern slavery via the charity Unseen.

Her work with the public sector is in its early stages at the moment, but Ms Chakrabarti emphasises she is keen to hear from any council that wishes to get involved.

‘While we’re not outwardly chasing lots of local authorities, we really welcome them getting in touch with us because we’re trying a prototype at the moment so the more input we have the easier it gets,’ she says.

‘And of course it is free for local authorities to join us and use the dashboard, so we’re keen to have those who really want to be forerunners in this to get in touch.’

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