Every four seconds, someone in the world becomes a slave. It is estimated that there are currently over 40,000,000 modern slaves worldwide. The scale of the problem is such that it is impossible to ignore. This September, Norton Rose Fulbright welcomed Matt Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club and international human trafficking expert, to Toronto and Ottawa to lead a seminar on modern slavery and its consequences for the private sector.

An estimated 76% of modern slavery takes the form of forced labour, and an estimated 60% of these cases are associated with supply chains. While the UN, NGOs and governments have taken action to combat modern slavery, last year a mere 0.02% of slavery victims were helped and less than 1% of criminals involved convicted.

This is where the private sector comes in. Supply chain legislation is emerging across the globe which not only requires companies to report on their slavery footprint, but is moving toward imposing fines and penalties on companies who fail to conduct human rights due diligence. More action is being taken against companies whose supply chains may benefit from forced labour, including consumer campaigns and even class action lawsuits. Media attention is also increasing dramatically, and investors are increasingly sensitive to modern slavery risks.

So, what can businesses do to mitigate these risks? Mr. Friedman gave several examples.

The first step is often raising awareness of the impact of modern slavery. There are extensive resources businesses can review to assess and identify the risks they face. Mr. Friedman emphasized the importance of businesses knowing their own supply chains through regular audits beyond the first tier. Acknowledging the potential financial burden this involves, Mr. Friedman noted an emerging trend to share audit information, including on an aggregated basis, given the potential reputational harm that can accrue collectively to a sector as a whole becoming associated with slavery.

Companies should also recognize the limitations of audits. Auditors often focus more on health and safety standards than on skilled interviews to detect forced labour, and individual auditors often lack the necessary authority to raise a serious issue in a timely way.

Mr. Friedman also noted several steps businesses can take. As well as sharing data, they can engage in training employees and suppliers, update their policies, update their recruitment and labour standards, implement anonymous reporting mechanisms, and set up emergency response teams. In fact, these are some of the things which Mr. Friedman’s association, the Mekong Club, can assist. The Mekong Club has developed several tools to help arm private companies in the fight against modern slavery, and Norton Rose Fulbright can also provide guidance and advice in assessing and implementing appropriate systems within your organization.

The author wishes to thank Kayla Quintal, articling student in Ottawa, for her contribution to this piece.

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