Hong Kong lags behind in the battle against modern-day slavery

Lowell Chow says supply chains are feeding the scourge, and the law, governments and communities must all be on guard to help the 45 million victims of forced labour worldwide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 11:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 8:14pm

A saddening, yet familiar story hit the headlines late last month. Children below 16 were sent from the western province of Yunnan to be exploited in textile factories in the eastern city of Changshu, in Jiangsu province.

As some experts point out, the issue is not child labour alone. The employers confiscate the children’s identity papers and do not pay wages until the end of the year, so as to prevent them from walking away from the job. This constitutes bonded labour, one of the many forms of forced labour.

Walk Free Foundation’s data for 2016 shows 45 million people are victims of modern slavery, which closely relates to almost every aspect of our daily lives, ranging from people who harvest our food, to those who serve us at hotels when we travel, to those who make the clothes we wear.

Yet, a new benchmark by KnowTheChain found that, in the global garments industry, action to tackle the scourge is lacking.

The ranking scored 20 major apparel and footwear companies on their efforts to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains. The two lowest-scoring companies were Hong Kong-listed Belle International (the top women’s shoe retailer in China) and Chinese clothing manufacturer Shenzhou International Group, with scores of 0/100 and 1/100, respectively. Neither has taken even the first basic step of having a publicly available supplier code of conduct to address worker rights.

Finance, wealth and ... slavery? Hong Kong one of Asia’s worst for forced labour

The benchmark did identify leading practices from some brands. Highest-scorer Adidas (81/100), for example, has strong processes in place to enable workers to organise and safely lodge grievances. It also takes steps to prevent exploitation during the recruitment process by favouring direct, permanent employment and establishing the requirements for recruitment agencies when they are used.

Watch: Modern day slavery and supply chains

Luxury brands – including Hugo Boss, Kering (owner of the Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Stella McCartney labels), Prada and Ralph Lauren – scored much lower overall than high street retailers such as Adidas, H&M, Inditex or Primark, with none getting an above-average score.

Some of the incentives for companies to act is coming from government legislation. In the US, California enacted the Transparency in Supply Chains Act in 2010, requiring businesses to disclose the efforts made, if any, to eradicate human trafficking and slavery from their supply chains. Five years on, the UK last year passed its Modern Slavery Act, which requires companies to produce annual statements describing the steps they have taken to beat slavery and human trafficking.

These laws have played an important role in pushing businesses to at least start looking into the issue, instead of turning a blind eye, as many did before.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s UK Modern Slavery Act Registry has found more than 1,000 company statements published under British law. Hong Kong firms with a turnover of more than £36 billion (HK$353.6 billion) doing business in the UK will need to report, too.

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Another factor that should drive greater disclosure in this region is the expectation for Hong Kong-listed companies to report their approach to social, environmental and governance issues.

For its part, the Hong Kong government should consider broadening its current narrow approach to tackling forced labour – focused on trafficking for prostitution – to also encourage companies to prevent exploitation through their supply chains. A strong response from business involves assessing risks to the lowest level of the supply chain, starting with commodities.

Watch: ‘Narcos’ actor Wagner Moura’s message on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, December 2

Cotton and leather are both among the goods produced by forced labour in China, the world’s largest cotton producer and exporter, for example.

Moving up the chain, forced labour is also prevalent in the manufacturing stages.

It affects both internal workers and foreign migrant workers across regions in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Clothes that we buy in Hong Kong could come from any of these locations, bearing risks of forced labour.

The world is watching what companies are doing to end modern-day slavery: it is time for corporates headquartered in China and Hong Kong to step up their game.

Lowell Chow is Greater China senior researcher and representative at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre