Matthew S. Friedman: Over the past year, investigations into several major name brands have identified slavery-like conditions within their supply chains. The intent of these investigative reports was to embarrass the companies, with the hope and expectation that this naming and shaming will bring about a significant change. In some cases, a boycott of the company’s products was also suggested.
The rationale for this approach is simple. The use of exploitative and forced labour is only profitable to the extent that the products produced by this labor can be sold. Remove the market for goods produced by forced labour and there is no incentive for its use. In recognition of this, the US and UK governments have taken a lead in targeting exploitative practices in the supply chains of major companies through new legislation. While there is a very little argument as to the value of targeting supply chains, there is room for discussion as to how this is best done. Naming and shaming is one approach – 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. While such incidents need to be addressed and all steps taken to prevent similar incidents, there are several basic problems with their use as a basis for “naming and shaming.”
First, it is not necessarily the worst companies that are targeted, but those who have an incident that becomes public. 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. For example, one prominent electronic company has received considerable bad press for exploitative working conditions in one of its factories, yet no good press for ensuring that thousands of migrant workers charged excessive fees were reimbursed. The third problem is that 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 provided by public image companies brought in to assist in managing the fall-out. Sadly, for those being exploited this may often make the situation even worse, depriving all those associated with the factory with their source of income.
If the expectation is that naming and shaming will bring about a significant change, it is not always clear how this can be achieved. In the environmental movement, where this tactic has been used extensively, the results are at best mixed.The approach itself is simple — you identify a perceived wrongful act, you identify an organization involved, and you publically expose them. You then try to initiate a discussion to bring about the desired change. While the first few steps can easily be achieved by this approach, the last, most important one, can sometimes be rendered impossible the moment the article hits the press. Human nature is very straightforward in this regard. If someone shames, embarrasses or attempts to harm you, you are not likely to sit down with them to hear their advice and guidance. Yes, some changes might be made by the corporation, but these can sometimes be short-term, reactive and insufficient. Instead of opening the door to dialogue, this shuts it forever.
While there may always be a need for naming and shaming when excessive labor violations are uncovered, and where companies repeatedly fail to address problems, there are other options. A more successful approach might include 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 organizations to work with the company to help them to 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 an 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, e.g. 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 human slavery victims, improving the lives of countless others along the way.This means working with them to bring about a positive change.
Writer: Matthew S. Friedman is the CEO of The Mekong Club, an organization of Hong Kong-based private sector business people who have joined forces to address human trafficking in Asia, which he also co-founded. From 2006 to 2012, Friedman was the Regional Manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) In Thailand, an inter-agency that links the United Nations system with governments and civil society groups in China, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Prior to this, Friedman worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal. He is an international human trafficking expert with more than 25 years of experience and technical advisor to numerous governments working to address slavery and human trafficking.
Friedman regularly speaks at major conferences around the world and is frequently cited in the news media on issues related to human trafficking and slavery in Asia. He is the author of 12 books on topics ranging from human trafficking to antiques.