Modern slavery: whose business is it?

Speakers at our 19th annual Investor Day addressed an audience of clients, guests and friends as part of an informative debate on modern slavery.

Surrounded by some of the greatest technological innovations of the modern age, the Institution of Engineering and Technology seemed a fitting venue to host a well-attended and engaging discussion on the transformative efforts being made to eradicate modern slavery in the global economy.

In his introductory address, Mark Nicholls, chairman of Rathbones, touched upon the involvement of the Rathbone family in the Abolitionist Movement of the late 18th century. William Rathbone IV was singled out for his stand against slavery, underlined by his founding of the Liverpool Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the country’s most profitable slave port.

Despite the success of abolitionism, however, slavery is still prevalent in the world. In his introduction to the day, John David, head of Rathbone Greenbank, warned that it is a lot closer to home than many realise.

Keynote speaker Steve Chalke founded Stop the Traffik in 2006 and is Special Advisor on Community Action to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN GIFT). In a passionate and illuminating address, Steve described the truly global scale of human trafficking, its immense profitability and the actions being taken to counter it.

Human trafficking prevails through its considerable financial returns (valued at some $150bn worldwide, according to an ILO report) and the fact that victims can be used and sold over and over again. Traffickers are highly organised, highly motivated and run little risk of being caught. In such an environment, Steve’s sobering message was that right now the traffickers are winning.

He nevertheless advocated multi-agency collaboration and the mobilisation of community action to “reduce the rewards and raise the risks” for traffickers and to move efforts ‘upstream’ from rescue to prevention.

Countering the traffickers’ organisational advantages are ‘traffic analysis’ maps generated from local intelligence sources and shared across associated networks. To help this technological effort, Stop the Traffik has developed the innovative STOP APP to harness the eyes and ears of the public.

Finally, Steve articulated how investors can lend significant weight to the prevention effort by generating the resources necessary to help others break the trafficking cycle, and by changing investment behaviour through greater understanding of companies’ complex supply chains.

Providing some perspective on the UK government’s commitment to the Modern Slavery Act was Miriam Minty, newly-appointed deputy head of the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Unit. Noting the estimated 13,000 cases of modern slavery in the UK, Miriam described the Home Office’s counteractive process of identification, support and prosecution, and why targeting activities in supply chains was essential in helping to cut off a major source of traffickers’ revenue.

She advised that the transparency directive wasn’t meant to be burdensome for companies but rather a means to encourage good business practice and galvanise a ‘race to the top’ mentality. Aiding this behavioural change was an increase in media interest and raising of public awareness.

Rathbone Greenbank’s Matt Crossman looked back at how a shocking human tragedy and the collective ‘investor voice’ helped drive the successful push for legislation to include a demand for transparency in supply chains.

Framing his talk in the context of the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, Matt described the sense of responsibility felt by many companies as they have sought to respond in the intervening years.

He explained how Rathbone Greenbank’s own engagement with key investors ultimately led to the formation of a coalition with £950bn of assets under management, providing the backing needed to advance the case for legislative change. In referencing Rathbones’ work to audit its own supply chain, Matt speculated on what the transparency directive might achieve with all companies working to the same end.

The final speaker was Louise Nicholls, head of responsible sourcing at Marks & Spencer, who observed that the world is experiencing a period of unprecedented social change, particularly in regard to the rapid disclosure of human rights violations.

Louise outlined how M&S has operated its own ethical audit programme since the 1990s. The company has worked to identify the greatest risks for human trafficking (agricultural supply chains are particularly susceptible), widening its supplier checks to include services as well as products. Its “Stronger Together” campaign aims to prevent hidden labour exploitation and support those suppliers who discover and report it.

A video of highlights is available to view here.

View further information on our Investor Day speakers.

A full report of this event will be published later in the summer and will be available on this website.