Addressing the issue of forced labor remains a complex and persistent challenge in the pursuit of sustainable supply chains. A recent survey by Gartner revealed that only half of sustainable procurement leaders feel they are effectively progressing in mitigating the risk of modern slavery within their supply chains, despite 71% acknowledging the importance of this risk.
Laura Rainier, a senior research director on Gartner’s sustainability team and a report author, emphasized the widespread nature of the problem, stating, “It is difficult because it is everywhere.” The survey, conducted as part of Gartner’s Sustainable Procurement Pulse Survey, included insights from 104 respondents involved in sustainable procurement initiatives over the past two years.
The Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free estimates that around 50 million people live in forced labor, with countries like China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and the U.S. being significant contributors. The U.S. stands out as the largest importer of goods associated with slavery risks.
Even challenges like state-sponsored forced labor, such as that faced by the Uyghur people in China, which has led to import laws in the U.S., can be challenging to root out from complex supply chains. Identifying links to debt bondage and forced labor associated with human trafficking, under deeply obscured conditions, presents an even greater challenge.
The Gartner survey respondents identified the vastness and complexity of supply chains as key barriers to addressing modern slavery risks. Achieving visibility and acquiring data emerge as foundational steps in managing these risks. Laura Rainier highlighted the need to understand both the entities within the supply chain and the activities taking place.
While publicly available data and risk management solutions can provide a general overview of high-risk commodities and countries, deeper visibility involves collecting specific data on manufacturers, suppliers, distribution hubs, and nodes. Cross-referencing this data with lists of entities linked to forced labor risks offers a comprehensive view of exposure to problematic areas.
However, suppliers may be reluctant to share information due to concerns about potential repercussions. Trust and collaboration with suppliers are essential to address modern slavery risks effectively. Rainier emphasized the importance of building capabilities with suppliers, including training and goal-setting, as well as implementing assessment and remedial processes.
Despite advancements in data analysis and technology, addressing modern slavery risks requires ongoing efforts, including combatting “audit fatigue” and overcoming challenges in traditional social audits. Rainier stressed the importance of stronger audits that focus on workers, with auditors having the ability to communicate directly with migrant workers in their languages.