Publicly naming companies that use forced labour doesn't always work to end the problem

Matthew Friedman says to effectively end forced labour, we must seek collaborators within the private sector to bring its substantial resources to bear on the problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 5:41pm

When is "naming and shaming" the right - or wrong - course of action to take to correct behaviour that society frowns upon? This is an approach taken to tackle the problem of forced labour, which has been described as a form of modern-day slavery. There's no doubt that multinational businesses in constant violation deserve a very public and global condemnation. But for many other businesses, might a more collaborative approach be more effective?

The rationale for this approach is simple. The use of exploitative and forced labour is profitable only to the extent that the products produced this way can be sold. Remove the market for goods produced by forced labour and there is no incentive to use it. In recognition of this, the US government has taken the lead in targeting exploitative practices in the supply chains of major companies through new legislation. Other governments, such as Britain's, have begun to follow. While there is little argument as to the value of targeting supply chains, there is room for discussion as to how best to do it. Naming and shaming is one approach, but there are others.

At present, most campaigns against companies are what might be called "incident-based"; that is, there is an incident, often tragic, in a factory that supplies goods to a major corporation. Although such incidents need to be addressed and steps taken to prevent similar incidents, there are problems with their use as a basis for naming and shaming.

While public shaming may work on repeat offenders, a more successful approach might involve engagement with the private sector in a positive and supportive manner

First, it is not necessarily the worst companies that are targeted.

Second, the response to these incidents tends not to be balanced. They focus on the negative aspects without acknowledging that progress might have been made over time.

Third, there is a tendency for companies to address incidents in supply chains by disassociation, immediately cutting contracts with offending factories. This is often the first advice from public image companies brought in to help manage the fallout. Sadly, for those being exploited, this may deprive all those associated with the factory of their source of income, which makes the situation worse.

If naming and shaming is expected to bring about a significant change, it is not always clear it succeeds. In the environmental movement, where this tactic has been used extensively, the results are at best mixed. Yes, some change might be made, but these can sometimes be short-term, reactive and insufficient. Instead of opening the door to dialogue, this shuts it forever.

So while public shaming may work on repeat offenders, a more successful approach might involve engagement with the private sector in a positive and supportive manner. For example, if slavery-like conditions are identified, the first step could be for concerned organisations to work with the company to help them correct the problem without it going public. This would change the approach from being confrontational to collegial.

Over the past three years, I have met with countless private-sector managers and directors from many major companies who really do care about this topic. They share the same world that we do and worry about the future for their own offspring. They also understand that increased attention to the plight of workers in their companies' supply chains means that addressing these problems is a business as well as a moral imperative.

The private sector has extensive human and financial resources that could be brought to bear to help address the problem. They know how to identify and root out bad businesses if they look for them. They have the skills and capabilities to tackle the problem - for example, legal, compliance, accounting, communications, and financial expertise.

Thus, if the private sector were to become more active in the fight, they could play a key role in significantly reducing the number of forced labour victims, improving the lives of countless others along the way. This means working with them to bring about a positive change.

Matthew Friedman is CEO of The Mekong Club