British trade and aid are so often powerful forces for good in the world. But we risk facilitating grave human rights abuses unless we improve monitoring and control of exactly where our money goes, says James Sinclair.
The Daily Mail and other right-wing media outlets regularly run campaigns calling into question Britain’s foreign aid contributions. The amount spent on foreign aid is actually quite small in the context of our overall economy (0.7% of GDP), but it has become a totemic issue for many on the right of British politics. They appear to think that Britain owes few, if any, obligations to anyone beyond our shores; in their world, we should lift the drawbridge and put an extra storey on the White Cliffs of Dover.
As may be obvious, I am not a fan of the Daily Mail or its brand of politics. However, on the issue of how the government spends our money overseas, they are on to something. Yes, they are coming at it from the wrong angle and they are drawing the wrong conclusions, but they are right to ask; ‘how is our money spent’? This is a very important question for those involved in global supply chains, which, whether we know it or not, includes all of us.
I recently spent nearly a decade living and working in the Middle East and South Asia. In 2006 I co-founded FSI Worldwide, an organisation dedicated to providing ethical work opportunities for migrants drawn into abusive employment in the Gulf. In the last ten years, we have taken thousands of people out of slavery and, in 2013, won a UN award for that work.
However, our efforts have barely touched the sides of a broken commercial ecosystem that continues to enrich criminals and abusers. So, we must redouble our commitment to rid the scourge of modern slavery from global supply chains. Together with my partners, I am preparing to launch a strategic litigation fund to bring vicarious corporate accountability cases to trial in the UK and US. Put simply; those who employ slaves must now be held to account.
My experiences in the Middle East have also led me to research the link between British military supply chains and modern slavery in conflict and post-conflict environments. This is a link that may not, at first sight, appear obvious. Surely, we, human-rights-compliant Great Britain with our well documented concern for the vulnerable and oppressed are not perpetuating slavery practices, are we? Well, perhaps not always intentionally or wilfully, but sometimes we are.
Part of the problem lies in the over-reliance on outsourcing. Since 1990, in common with many other western countries, we have slashed the numbers of directly employed service personnel by around 50% and replaced them with arms-length contractors. When we go to war nowadays we often rely on vast ‘shadow army’ of so-called ‘third country nationals’ (TCNs). In Iraq and Afghanistan coalition troops were fed, guarded and generally supported by TCNs. Many are ex-service personnel from places like Nepal and the vast majority are enslaved via bonded labour practices routinely imposed by unscrupulous sub-contractors.
Now, call me old-fashioned, but I’m not keen on the idea of our money being used to enslave people. Quite apart from the ethical and legal concerns, which would be reason enough, it is obviously not a good idea to spend large amounts of hard-earned taxpayer funds creating, or exacerbating, a problem, only to spend yet more money, via foreign aid and development spending, trying to fix it. Surely it would be better if we exercised greater control over that spending in the first place. The problem is that, as a consequence of multi-tier subcontracting, the government doesn’t really know where our money ends up.
It is all well and good to undertake due diligence on a prime, or tier-one contractor, but what about the subcontractor in Dubai or the labour agent in Nepal? The fact is that these companies and individuals often act with almost total impunity. Such contractual checks and balances as may exist are patently failing to restrain unethical or illegal behaviour and there follows an international game of ‘pass-the-buck’ on corporate responsibility.
The tragedy of this situation is that those who can least afford to do so end up shouldering the burden of corruption and exploitation that characterises this system. Recent reports by Amnesty International and others have documented heart-breaking stories of already poor and vulnerable people tricked into assuming huge debts linked to abusive migrant employment. These debts and the consequent exacerbation of cycles of desperation are responsible for untold human misery and it’s happening on our watch.
These vulnerable people, whether migrating for work or working in abusive local employment, are often part of supply chains linked to western companies who profit handsomely from their engagement in this modern slave trade. For years, many such companies feigned ignorance or paid lip-service to the problem. Indeed, many respectable international organisations continue to deny their role in this festival of abuse. We have showpiece sporting events, iconic buildings and, yes, military campaigns all linked to slavery, yet no serious steps are taken to address the systemic contractual and cultural failures that underpin this wholesale exploitation.
Fortunately, the law in the UK has moved decisively in our favour over the past 10 years and it continues to recognise the need to protect the most vulnerable, even if they are based overseas. As such, the time has come for strategic litigators to target abusers and raise the cost of unethical and illegal behaviour. Companies who want to tackle slavery in their supply chains will now find many hands willing to lift them to a more sustainable and ethical future and we should encourage their efforts. However, those who knowingly profit from slavery and show no interest in tackling this problem must be made to understand that it is not an acceptable business model and should answer for their actions in court.
Many people, myself included, are proud of the generally positive role that Britain has played and continues to play in the world. As we move towards Brexit and a new relationship with countries outside the EU, we need to protect and enhance our reputation for fairness and decency. However, we cannot do this if we turn a blind-eye to British corporate wrongdoing overseas; it is a stain on our national character and it must stop.