Slavery is 'in all our supply chains'

“It is in all of our supply chains and anybody who says: ‘There is absolutely no modern slavery in my supply chain, full stop’, is lying. It's out there. Our job is to go find and fix.”

This was the battle cry from Chris Harrop, group sustainability and marketing director at Marshalls, who has been working at the paving and landscaping materials firm for the past 17 years, 15 of them spent fighting modern slavery.

Speaking at the CIPS UK Conference, Harrop highlighted that just 23% of 7,500 eligible UK companies were deemed to have met the legal requirement in terms of compliance with the Modern Slavery Act, according to the Modern Slavery Registry.

He called on procurement professionals to take charge against modern slavery in supply chains and go beyond the Act’s minimum requirements, which state that every company turning over more than £36m a year is bound by law to annually publish a modern slavery statement on their website.

“All of us have a massive responsibility to address the 136,000 in modern slavery in the UK, and all of the supply chain issues overseas as well. We have a moral, legal and a corporate reputational need to do that,” said Harrop.

Unintended benefits

Worldwide, there are thought to be 40.3 million people in modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index. One of the ways Marshalls is combating the issue, Harrop explained, is by putting employees on the ground in nations such as India and China where modern slavery has been especially prevalent. Having a full-time social auditor going in everyday at the source allows the company to spot and report issues such as child labour, and know what action to take as they’re also working with local schools.

While it is “morally reprehensible” said Harrop, to claim competitive advantage from combating modern slavery, Marshalls underlines unintended benefits from working so closely with suppliers. Quality, productivity and engagement have all been boosted, he said.

“We get offered more new products than anybody else; we get lower costs than anybody else because we're working for the partnership.”

In Vietnam, said Harrop, there is currently a big problem with prison labour being forced onto manufacturers through corruption. One of the reasons Marshalls knows this, he pointed out, is because the company switched from using auditors to undercover workers. “We don't use auditors to look at supply chains because auditors are announced and everything's ‘perfect’. I've had 10 years of audits that said, ‘No problem whatsoever’. But put a couple of undercover workers in there, and suddenly it changes completely.”

Working alongside suppliers

Where suppliers have been forced to use prison labour, said Harrop, the company tries to work to solve the problems. “By getting people trained, the quality of products goes up, the visibility within the supply chain gets better, and the commitment to those suppliers gets better and we are working alongside those suppliers,” he said.

Marshalls’ Ethical Risk Index is a further part of the company’s drive to move on from basic compliance with the Act, and has been successful over the past few years with clients wanting to assess the risks of procuring materials from specific countries.

“Using this approach, we're able to say to customers it's really quite risky, taking some of this Chinese granite, for example. What are we doing to help minimise those risks? And if they're worried, actually we’d recommend that they move to some of the Portuguese granite,” said Harrop.

However, Harrop was quick to point out that Marshalls “doesn’t walk away” from a supply chain unless faced with violence. “But I'd certainly like to see a better supply chain. When I talk to the local authorities I explain that I'm in this to help them improve international standards.”

Harrop’s final warning came as he spoke of the race to the bottom concerning procurement costs. “Where else can you go when you've got to the bottom? You go somewhere that will be using prison labour, or slaves, and you don't pay the labour. And that's another way of taking costs out of supply chain. It's utterly repugnant, utterly wrong from a moral and legal perspective – and it opens you up to all sorts of challenges.”