Matthew Friedman says the successful mission to land man on the moon, once thought impossible, should inspire a uniting vision to eradicate this stain on humanity. Once committed, a blueprint for action should follow

At a recent board meeting, one of our directors listed the reasons that business should be concerned with modern slavery. These included new legislation related to modern slavery, more stringent government procurement practices, an increasing number of lawsuits against corporations, and greater media and consumer attention.

He concluded by saying that supply chains containing forced labour are simply not sustainable and that, for the private sector, non-engagement is no longer an option. At this point, one of our colleagues interjected: “Everything you say is true, but you forgot the most important reason – that slavery is just plain wrong.” 

Modern slavery continues to be a sensitive issue within the private sector. A lack of experience in dealing with this complex problem means that many companies don’t know how to begin the process of engaging. But, just like the practices that led William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln to stand up for what was right and just, we are talking about a blight on the world, and our bottom line has to be that, when people look back on our times, we were on the right side of history.

While there are a number of initiatives being put in place within the private sector to identify and address modern slavery, many companies lack a sufficiently detailed understanding of the issue, a strategic plan, tools to detect criminal behaviour, internal incentives to respond, and resources to act.

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Furthermore, much of the existing work is being done in an isolated and unsystematic way. Based on these factors, I often hear people state that having the private sector address modern slavery in a meaningful way is completely unrealistic. We need a uniting vision.

A famous example of such a uniting vision was president John F. Kennedy’s statement that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. This was right on the borderline between hugely ambitious and completely unrealistic, and many people said it simply couldn’t be done. But despite the overwhelming obstacles, this goal provided not only a purpose but also a challenge that required innovation, commitment and teamwork.

But despite the overwhelming obstacles, this goal provided not only a purpose but also a challenge that required innovation, commitment and teamwork.

So, what would a similar goal be for the private sector in addressing modern slavery? Something ambitious, but not impossible; and something that could free millions of people from exploitative labour practices, while not forcing business to choose between what is right, what is sustainable and what is profitable?

I would like to suggest the following goal: “The private sector will eliminate forced labour from its supply chains by 2028 without a negative impact on profitability.” Like the man-on-the-moon goal, this is certainly ambitious, but it can be done.

The goal does not take as a given that there is a trade-off between worker rights and shareholder obligations, between the incentives of business to remain profitable and the need to treat all people with decency. Instead, it challenges the private sector to come up with new approaches and innovative solutions – a challenge that business knows how to meet.

Like the man-on-the-moon goal, this is certainly ambitious, but it can be done

Matthew Friedman, CEO of The Mekong Club

Of course, there are clearly additional costs in ensuring that our supply chains are free of labour violations.

But again, there are lessons to be drawn from the moon project. When the Apollo project was first initiated, there were countless technological challenges to overcome. Every detail had to be discussed to come up with viable solutions. These challenges ranged from designing the rocket and lander vehicle, to simple questions of how to feed the astronauts in a zero-gravity environment. To meet these goals, the Apollo team prioritised what were the essential elements and focused on these.

Based on the lessons learned, there are a set of descriptors that can be used as a framework for a coordinated and effective private-sector response to modern slavery. The premise is simple: if these elements are in place, the chances of reaching the goal are increased.

  • First, a strategic plan would articulate the overall goals and activities of a response to modern slavery. This plan would offer a clear, well-defined blueprint forward.
  • Second, detailed, standardised information related to the issue would need to be systematically shared within private-sector communities at all levels.
  • Third, private companies would need to regularly come together within multi-stakeholder working groups to discuss the issue and coordinate a united front.
  • Fourth, a range of standardised tools would need to be developed, tested and routinely used within private-sector communities to detect modern slavery vulnerability and active cases.
  • Fifth, standardised systems would be needed to report situations in which there are reasonable grounds to suspect that modern slavery is taking place.
  • Sixth, a secure system is needed to collect, integrate and analyse a range of modern slavery data sets.
  • Finally, collaboration between private companies, NGOs, and law-enforcement and government agencies needs to be standardised and formalised.

These descriptors offer a vision of how we can respond to the issue of modern slavery in a united and cost-effective way. What if the talented people in the private sector could work together to eliminate forced labour from supply chains by 2028? Would this not be a great achievement?

To reach this goal, we need to focus on the essential elements and then work under a unified strategic plan. This was how we took man to the moon for the first time and I believe we can banish slavery to the history books in the same way.

By Matthew Friedman is CEO of the Mekong Club

This op-ed appeared in SCMP’s business section:

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