This activist has a radical new way to combat illicit trade and modern slavery

Combating illicit trade and modern slavery is best done by pressuring companies directly, even when their promises are hollow, according to a leading human rights lawyer and activist.

The alternative of introducing legislation as a first step is often inneffective, says Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, secretary general of NGO No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), since companies lobby against lawmakers’ efforts, find loopholes or simply deny they are in breach of new rules. Getting companies to agree to better self-regulation is often easier and more effective.

“You can get companies to set a much higher standard if they believe the compliance mechanism is essentially themselves,” says Figà-Talamanca. “Then you can creep legislative efforts in, and it’s much harder for them to lobby against stuff that they have already agreed to.”

Starting with legislation, he says, “usually addresses last year’s problem,” since implementing new laws is often very slow. Meanwhile, parliamentarians “can say they have done something to clean up the supply chain,” he says, but the result is “a new standard, which is a c**p standard.”

Earlier this year, the UK’s National Crime Agency said the slave trade in the UK is “far more prevalent” than expected, with trafficked labour prevalent in domestic servitude and sex work as well as in the agricultural and construction industries. Meanwhile, illicit trade networks, which deal in weapons, drugs, human beings and more, generate billions every year, according to the OECD, and the drug market in the EU alone is worth an estimated €24 billion per year, according to EUROPOL

The textiles industry is a good example of how successful self-criticism can be, particularly for client-facing businesses, and when brands’ names are part of the value of the product. Many clothing retailers faced a consumer backlash in recent years against allegations that brands like Primark were using “sweatshops” and workers in slave-like conditions to produce products.

As a result, says Figà-Talamanca, “H&M have to be responsible for their whole supply chain,” and cannot claim not to be responsible for the way their suppliers treat workers.

Tech giant Apple has also publicly discussed finding instances of human rights abuses and conflict minerals in its supply chain. This is “fantastic,” says Figà-Talamanca, because “it really raises the bar for everybody else.”

However, there is much more to be done. Speaking at the Financial Times’ Combating Illicit Trade conference on Thursday, Ruth Freedom Pojman, an expert in human trafficking at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said there were an estimated 116 million workers and forced labourers globally hidden in supply chains.

Affecting change in non-client facing sectors, such as the extractive industry, is particularly challenging, says Figà-Talamanca, since customers are not buying a brand, and “gold is gold.”

Sometimes, he says, it feels like companies will only take action “if they hear the jingle of handcuffs in the boardroom.” But putting pressure on industry leaders, like Apple, is crucial, he says, since many are now looking to build reputations for being sustainable and good global citizens.

“Try and set the standard as high as possible even when you know that it’s a lie, because then you try and hold them to that lie,” he says. “This is the game.”

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