By Rebecca Webb, Ethical Trade Officer

Modern slavery is a hidden and complicated issue. It’s indiscriminate and can affect absolutely anyone including your family, friends, colleagues or strangers you might pass in the street. Thousands of people around the globe are suffering, and yet their plights are not known. They are victims of modern slavery- people being trafficked into our country every day by criminal gangs who ruthlessly exploit them and bind them over to slave labour. We can all play our part in fighting this issue. That’s why we’ve created a ‘spot the signs’ poster. Please take some time to read through how you might identify situations and victims of modern slavery. Your actions can help save lives.

This Sunday 18 October is Anti-Slavery Day and we want to have an open conversation about modern slavery with everyone. What it is, why it’s important we understand it, what it means for us as a business and how you can help others in your everyday lives. Next week, we’re sharing a few colleague stories from members of our Food Policy team who all work together to combat modern slavery. 

This week we also held a Lunch and Learn session for colleagues which focused on our role in tackling modern slavery which you can watch here. We also hosted a webinar for our suppliers on “Modern Slavery Risk Management in Challenging Times” where they heard from experts on current trends and shared experiences of how best to handle cases in their own supply chains.

Co-op was founded to tackle social injustices and inequalities 

The birth of the Co-op was a direct response to the exploitation of factory workers living in slum conditions in towns like Rochdale in Greater Manchester.  The rights and wellbeing of mill workers and their communities is what led to the very formation of the Co-op in 1844 and it’s that commitment to taking responsibility for workers which has shaped our thinking and actions ever since

We’re all here today because of the extraordinary steps our pioneers took. And this is why we all need to take note about modern slavery today. Exploitation happens every day all around us without us ever knowing. Modern slavery can come in many forms including forced labour, debt bondage or trafficking. The pure scale of the problem can be overwhelming. The International Labour Organisation estimates 40 million people are victims of modern slavery globally. The Global Slavery Index estimates there are 136,000 potential victims in the UK on any given day. 

The pandemic has heightened the risks of people being exploited because the labour market keeps changing so much. We believe all the work we’ve done in the past to combat modern slavery is more important now than ever.

What’s more is that our members support us in that ambition. At our 2017 AGM, our members voted overwhelmingly in support of us campaigning on modern slavery and better support for victims. 

How we act to prevent modern slavery

We have a responsibility to prevent slavery in any form throughout our business. Take our Food supply chain for instance. There could be hundreds of workers involved to get one product on our shelves. We need to make sure we are protecting every single one of them. 

Yet, while we’ve worked hard to put processes in place with our suppliers to protect these vulnerable workers, modern slavery cases can be challenging to address and difficult to find. Every year we write a Modern Slavery statement which explains our work to prevent modern slavery and support victims. We were one of the first businesses to include an example of where we’ve found modern slavery in our supply chains. For us, uncovering cases is a success. It shows that our suppliers have found victims and helped them find a way out. You can read more about how we protect workers in Co-op Food supply chains here

We have a robust Ethical Trade audit monitoring programme which covers all Co-op branded products. Where issues are identified through ethical audits, we work with suppliers to find solutions. But we know audits can only go so far. That’s why we have a global supplier engagement programme packed with training and learning events for our suppliers to develop capacity to deal with the issue. In our next colleague story we’ll hear more from the Ethical Trade Team on how we work together to develop solutions to issues that put workers’ interests first. 

If you’d like to know more please contact ethicaltrade@coop.co.uk

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