Modern Slavery – The Time for Procurement to Do More

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Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend a Modern Slavery event in Liverpool. That same day I read an article in The Telegraph quoting the International Labour Organization on how modern slavery is the highest it’s ever been with estimates of slavery now at 50 million people due to covid, conflict and climate change. This is 9.3 million higher than earlier estimates. Furthermore, this is not just a global issue. In the UK, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is quoting that “the number of referrals received has exceeded 4,000 for the first time in a quarter and is the highest since the NRM began in 2009”

Attendees at the Modern Slavery event included some of the best UK based thought leaders from the academic and practitioner world. The topic of the event was Modern Slavery and Supply Chains – Exploring the Intersection of Policy and Research. What became clear from the event is the range of theoretical ideas to try and make an impact on a complex issue such as modern slavery. Academics within the room were highlighting the need to work together, approach things differently and focus on outcomes to try to impact and eradicate this horrible phenomenon. There was agreement that changing the capitalised model (that some blame for the issue) is unlikely, meaning sensible solutions need to be found, whether this be legislation improvements (such as EU corporate sustainability due diligence) or encouraging organisations to take greater accountability. 

Further comments for consideration included:

  • Whether investor data and investor reviews could generate additional insight to help shape how organisations behave on this topic.
  • Understanding and agreeing what success looks like for the detection of trafficking in supply chains rather than the current approach of trying to spot it occurring. 
  • A concern regarding the way in which academic attention is heavily focused on multinational companies rather than the informal economy. To be able to stand a chance of eradicating modern slavery, it is imperative that we include as part of any research, the informal supply chains and actors within them. Supporting this point, a modern slavery victim spoke about how he and other victims are typically willing to help in shaping what a more ‘fit for purpose’ model would cover.

Even after Brexit, the latest Queen’s speech mentioned both modern slavery and the procurement bill. It is expected that elements of the current Modern Slavery Act are to be made mandatory or strengthened – through, for example, public sector reporting. Furthermore, as other countries are imposing import bans on items where slavery is known to have happened in the supply chain, so businesses will need to be aware of the impact this may have. Recent governments have made efforts to encourage civil society to demand changes, however the challenge here relates to the complexity of the topic, in particular regarding the how and why to push this change.

What is becoming clear is that procurement professionals and supply chains have a substantial impact in terms of how organisations are run and this in turn heavily impacts how those looking in from the outside, view an organisation. Reputation matters. With or without further regulation, what is clear is that the profession needs to step up further and make a real difference to society. The days of just obtaining a few quotes and saving a few pennies have long gone. Procurement and supply chains are now being put in the spotlight as the professionals to help make a difference not just for modern slavery but also for sustainability, the cost-of-living crisis, security of supply and social value.

The profession has made some great progress in the last decade, but if there is ever a time to stand up and be counted, the time is now for the profession! Our busy lives are about to get busier, but with smarter ways of working and technology advances, we are at a great period of time to accept this challenge.

Nathan Davies Black and W

Nathan Davies

Nathan is a Delivery Director at Barkers with over 15 years of regulated and non-regulated procurement experience gained on multi-million pound contracts. He is also a member of the University of Liverpool’s Management School’s Operations and Supply Chain Management Research Group. As part of this role, Nathan has been asked to lead some of the research projects which form part of a Modern Slavery research group who are working alongside the CCS, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office to understand how best to improve, identify and tackle modern slavery outcomes through changed commercial practices.

Nathan’s own doctoral research thesis is entitled How could Procurement Activities Impact Modern Slavery Conditions in a UK Construction Supply Chain? The research is an investigation into Modern Slavery and Social Value from a Procurement and supply chain context. Can an organisation’s supply chain management function make a real difference to society whilst fulfilling typical supply chain targets? Can sourcing decisions move away from the lowest contract price to total social benefit?

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Author: Nathan Davies