Putting courage at the heart of business

Courage. In the past few weeks, I've seen more evidence of this amongst global corporations than I could ever have imagined.

When I launched the Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Award last year, an initiative to reward businesses that have excelled in efforts to try to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains, I could not have predicted the response.

Would companies be brave enough to subject themselves to a level of scrutiny that might publically expose significant issues in their supply chains? Would they wish to be associated with an award connected to 'slavery' in any way?

The response to our Stop Slavery Award has far surpassed all expectations. Global, heavyweight brands have thrown their hats into the ring alongside smaller, independent companies. All voluntarily took on the task of completing a very detailed questionnaire. Our shortlist of ten have gone through rigorous assessment by an independent third party, using specific criteria based on existing standards and best practices. These companies have tried to eradicate slavery from their supply chains attempting different approaches, and then trying harder when some of them didn't work. The transparency that has emerged through their submissions is quite remarkable.

Technology giants such as Apple - with a large and complex supply chain - and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are shortlisted, along with Dutch manufacturing company NXP Semiconductors.

Big retailers like Tesco compete with Thai Union, the world's largest producer of seafood. Interestingly, the two companies are at odds over the environmental standards of John West Tuna, a Thai Union brand that Tesco has currently removed from its shelves.

Australian iron ore mining company Fortescue Metals Group, hospitality and travel company Carlson, food producers ABP UK, Twining teas and Gildan Activewear complete the shortlist.

These businesses now face an authoritative and independent judging board to decide on a winner. The jury comprises Nobel Peace Prize Kailash Satyarthi, global human rights and business expert John Ruggie, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus H. Vance Jr, Britain's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland, International Criminal Prosecutor Patricia Sellers; Edelman President and CEO Richard Edelman, and myself. The winner (or winners) will be announced at the Foundation's Trust Women conference on November 30 and receive a sculpture created by Anish Kapoor for this initiative.

Clearly, the nominations will lead to further press scrutiny for these companies. Nevertheless, they have put themselves forward.

In contrast, look at the disappointing response to the UK's Modern Slavery Act. Passed last year, the bill requires all companies with a turnover of more than £36 million operating in the United Kingdom to report on the steps they are taking to clean their supply chains of the risk of forced labour.

So far, only 27 FTSE of the 100 companies have complied. Among them, just two - Marks and Spencer, and SABMiller (now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev)- have been independently rated as 'best performers' by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. It was widely hoped that many more would set a precedent for the 12,000 businesses globally who are required to comply with the Act.

The fight against modern slavery is complex. According to the Walk Free Foundation, there are currently 45.8million slaves worldwide.

Today, the growing slave industry is worth US$ 150 billion a year, according to the ILO, meanwhile the combined response by international governments amounts to less than $1 billion a year. We are fighting an organized crime in a totally disorganized manner.

But if businesses are ready to take on their share of the fight, things could change rapidly.

A new global ranking, the Modern Slavery Index, says companies are exposed to slavery in their supply chains in 115 countries - almost 60% of the world's nations. India and China are among the big export economies where the risk is highest.

Modern-day slavery is a silent crime. Victims cannot stand up and speak out. Perpetrators act in almost total impunity. Yet a growing global thirst for cheap products and fast fashion ensures the most vulnerable will continue to be enslaved, often hidden so far down the supply chain of a multinational corporation that those running the business will not know of this if they don't specifically look out for it.

The complexity of today's global supply chains means that today no corporation can confidently declare it is slave-free. But when businesses start to think of human rights as an imperative, there is a glimmer of hope.

Let us hope that the Stop Slavery Award is the first, courageous step, in the right direction.