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Supply Chains: A modern day slavery?

By Alex Hughes

Last week saw the anniversary of the disaster at the Rana Plaza factory, which claimed the lives of over 1,100 workers. The textile workers in the factory helped seam together garments for a number of high street brands in the Western World, placing these retailers firmly in the media spotlight.

This unfortunate case highlights how little is known about our supply chains. An understanding of how the first tier supplier is performing against company policy and requirements is important, but with increasing transparency comes scrutiny further down the chain. The merits of globalisation are many, but such has been the extension of supply chains we may have ‘lost control’, not knowing where they truly begin.

The ILO estimates that 21 million people are in bonded labour (a modern day slavery), trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into. Recent high profile events have been tainted by this contentious issue, from the Sochi games to the building of the Qatar World Cup venues. It may be easy for companies to be dismissive and lay the blame on hosting governments, their regulation and enforcement. But lessons could be drawn from the Rana Plaza scandal. It was not the factory owners who were blamed by the international press, but the global firms who procured from them.

It seems apparent there is a fear of becoming the first to place the proverbial head above the parapet and engage with the issue, perhaps for fear of reprisal from the media. But time is moving fast. The issue is receiving more attention now with high profile events mired in problems. Richard Branson has also recently come out in support of a campaign to end modern day slavery. The proverbial parapet is being breached. 

Generation Y have grown up in an interconnected world, and are often called ‘Global Citizens’. Hewlett et al. (2009) suggest their values are linked with multicultural ease and environmental awareness. What does this mean? That Generation Y are as concerned about issues overseas as they are with those in their country borders. They are the next wave of spenders, and they will want to know where things are grown and made. Now is time for firms to check their supply chains. Ignorance may be ‘bliss’, but in a world of fast moving information this will be short-lived. It’s far better to understand and address the issue on your own terms than risk a company reputation.

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