Burmese fishermen raise their hands when they are asked who wants to go home, following a report on rampant slavery in the fishing industry in the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina. Photo: AP
The View
by Matthew Friedman
The View
by Matthew Friedman

How socially responsible investing can help end modern slavery

  • Investing with a conscience is a growing trend worldwide, but the focus so far has been on environmental and governance issues. Metrics must be established to track social issues, so investors can make a tangible impact
Globally, it is estimated that more than 40 million men, women and children are victims of modern slavery today, with 62 per cent in Asia and the Pacific. These victims, who can be found in factories, construction sites and fisheries, are forced to work for little or no pay, deprived of their freedom and often subjected to unimaginable suffering. Many of these victims are associated with manufacturing supply chains, which begin with a grower or producer, and end with a finished product on the retail market.
Despite the best efforts of the United Nations, governments and NGOs around the world, only 0.2 per cent of the victims are helped each year. For the world to really make a difference to this problem, the private sector must get on board.
But modern slavery continues to be a sensitive issue in the private sector. Because it is new and often hard to address in a business context, many companies don’t know how to begin the process of engaging. But with a range of new anti-slavery legislation, more lawsuits against corporations and wider media attention, ignoring this issue is no longer an option.
Investors have a key role to play in fighting against modern slavery. Certain goods are more likely to have been produced in conditions of modern slavery, if sourced from certain territories: according to the Global Slavery Index 2018, these include cotton, bricks, garments, sugar cane, gold, carpets, coal, fish, rice, timber, cocoa and electronics. It is essential that investors carefully assess companies in these sectors and have adequate policies and procedures in place to identify and address modern slavery in their supply chains.
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on environmental, social and governance, or ESG, factors in investment decisions. Each stream of ESG data should include indicators of related issues. Environmental data relates to biodiversity, carbon emissions, energy use and water management; Social factors include modern slavery, human rights, diversity, employee relations and occupational health and safety; and governance data relates to board composition, executive compensation, ownership structure and shareholder rights.

Investing with a conscience has grown 17 per cent a year and, today, around US$20 trillion – a quarter of the assets under management worldwide – is invested in accordance with ESG principles. Evidently, sustainable investing can reward companies, shape their policies and positively impact environmental and social issues.

To date, the investment world has focused largely on environmental and governance factors, which are tracked via extensive data and indicators. For example, there is a range of environmental metrics available for tracking global warming and deforestation. Investors value such visibility and prefer to invest in companies producing measurable improvements.

However, there has been less emphasis on social issues because the social impact of investment is less tangible. For social factors to achieve the same outcome as environmental ones, indicators and metrics have to be established. In the case of modern slavery, the market lacks a standardised set of quantifiable indicators that companies can use as a reporting standard and that asset managers can base their investments on.

A Nike advertising campaign featuring quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a stand on racial injustice, has been a hit with American millennials. As this socially conscious generation stands to inherit US$40 trillion in assets over the next four decades, it is important to cater to these future investors and consumers. Photo: AFP

The Mekong Club has developed a set of indicators that form the basis of private sector training for this issue. The indicators focus on internal practices that associated companies have been advised to implement. They have led to victim identification in supply chains, and proven effective in driving change. Our vision is to enable the investment community to make a tangible impact through their investments, by motivating the companies to implement better practices.

More companies are coming to realise their existence does not have to revolve solely around maximising profits and expanding their business. There is an emerging trend among companies based in Asia for integrating the idea of doing something for the greater good into their corporate DNA.

It must be recognised that doing good and being profitable are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be complementary and even create a competitive advantage. Consumers respect companies that take a stand. It has been reported that 84 per cent of millennials are interested in sustainable investing, and as this socially conscious generation stands to inherit US$40 trillion in assets over the next four decades, it is important to cater to these future investors and consumers.

Asset managers hold the power to influence companies and ultimately help victims of modern slavery. With only 0.2% of millions of victims being saved now, investors have a lot of room to make a huge difference.

Matthew Friedman is CEO of the Mekong Club

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Slavery-free portfolios