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What we learnt from our conference on trade, investment and modern slavery

Professor Dame Sara Thornton reflects on the ‘Harnessing UK trade and investment to address modern slavery’ conference.

Published: 19th December 2022

On 15-16 November, the University of Nottingham Rights Lab organised an online conference entitled ‘Harnessing UK trade and investment to address modern slavery’, as part of the Modern Slavery PEC-funded project. Professor Dame Sara Thornton, who is a Co-Investigator of the project, reflects on the key lessons from the conference in a new blog.

Most research projects hold knowledge exchange events, be they conferences or workshops, at the end of their study. Our current project on trade and investment policy to address modern slavery risks in the Indo Pacific region took a different approach by convening experts, scholars and policy makers at the outset of our work. This was a novel but deliberate approach to build a network. Scholarship in this area is less developed and civil society, business and policy leaders have so much wisdom to share.

We held the conference online over two days which enabled contributions from the US, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand. The keynotes were on the record but the panel sessions were held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage candour and openness.

Modern slavery as a trade and investment system failure

The evidence that global value chains promote growth was set out by several speakers. However these supply chains do not account for the true cost of production and distribution, these costs are socialised leaving us all worse off. In that regard, modern slavery is a system failure. Trade and investment policy provide opportunities to address these modern slavery risks. However, Todd Landman, a co-investigator, warned us all that there are still great challenges with prevalence data which makes assessing impact tricky.

Our initial principal investigator, James Cockayne, and his successor, Timothy Masiko gave opening keynotes and set out the challenges. Both discussed the approach of the World Trade Organisation to exclude labour standards and labour rights from trade agreements. We had tried and failed to secure a WTO speaker to explain the rationale for this - and so the suggestion that it will be seen as protectionism by the global south was an explanation that resonated. It was clear that any move to change this would need the support of 164 members. This was agreed to be challenging.

In the meantime, Anti-Slavery International is campaigning for core labour rights to be part of bi-lateral trade deals. As part of our project we are analysing and coding as many trade deals as we can find – this will help to assess the extent to which labour rights, forced labour or modern slavery are currently considered.

US forced labour trade bans setting the agenda

While trade bans were described as opportunistic and movement driven it was evident that US trade bans are making an impact on world trade. We looked at the issue from the perspective of a senior representative of US Customs and Border Protection, an active and campaigning NGO and a Malaysian company that has had a trade ban imposed and then worked to address the abuses and provide remedy for the workers. These were fascinating insights into the way in which the US Tariff Act 1930 is being used to ban the import of goods made with forced labour into the US.

There was evidence that relatively low levels of enforcement were having a significant impact on the decision making in business. It was forcing business to have much greater visibility of their supply chains and importantly was grabbing the attention of the C suite. Forced labour was no longer solely the concern of middle managers in the Corporate Social Responsibility department but was being addressed at board level because import bans pose an existential threat to a business. This in turn was driving greater use of technology, DNA, AI and blockchain, to provide transparency of supply chains. It was also encouraging to hear that $40 million has been paid in remedy to workers in the company and that the ban had been lifted because all 11 International Labour Organisation indicators of forced labour had been addressed.

This assessment is particularly relevant because the European Commission has also proposed a ban on goods made with forced labour which would apply to imported goods and goods made within the European Union. While several speakers expressed the need for these proposals to be improved – particularly in respect of remedy – there was widespread support for this development. The UK government is clearly watching all these developments with interest and this project will provide timely evidence of their impact.

Investment frameworks playing catch up

Throughout the sessions we returned to the fact that while there are global frameworks for trade flows there are no similar arrangements for flows of capital through investments. The sessions on investment therefore focussed on the voluntary and collaborative efforts of investors and the potential role of stock exchanges to address modern slavery risks. In the UK there is the Find it, Fix it, Prevent it collaboration of over 50 investors with assets under management of £13 trillion and in the Asian Pacific there is Investors Against Slavery and Trafficking with $8 trillion (AUD) assets under management. In both cases investors use structured engagement with the companies they own to raise forced labour issues. And lastly, a fascinating presentation by the Stock Exchange of Thailand illustrated the potential influence of stock exchanges as a gateway to capital.

Having heard a wide range of contributions from professionals leading work on trade and investment the challenge for our team is to build a bridge to our research. What can we say about the impact of these approaches to modern slavery risks? Will our country case studies in India, China, Malaysia and Thailand have any consistent observations about trade and investment policies? This project is timely and relevant and we are determined to develop wisdom and insight that will be valuable for policy makers.

Professor Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM is Professor of Practice in Modern Slavery Policy at University of Nottingham Rights Lab, and former UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner. She is a Co-Investigator of the project ‘Harnessing UK Trade and Investment to Address Modern Slavery Risks’ funded by the Modern Slavey PEC.

Videos from the conference

Below you can watch some of the keynote speeches from the conference.

Dr. Timothy Masiko: Project overview

Dr James Cockayne: System Failure? Responding to Modern Slavery Through Trade and Investment Regimes

Prof Todd Landmann: 'Measuring modern slavery'

Prof Facundo Albornoz Crespo: Forced Labour and Trade (and Investment?)