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Modern Slavery; a sickening circularity

Elaine Mitchel-Hill, Business and Human Rights Lead at Marshalls plc
Tuesday 12th November, 2019

The global scale and interconnectedness of the challenges of modern slavery and human trafficking are painfully evident. I attended an important event recently in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, organised by the British Embassy - to learn and to share perspectives on supply chain transparency. For my part, I spoke candidly of Marshalls long journey regarding human rights which started back in 2005, how this has influenced our response to the UK Modern Slavery Act and the raft of international legislation which has followed. I also talked about the challenges we are grappling with and the difficult internal discussions that result.

Marshalls source natural stone from Vietnam. We work with our suppliers to implement the ETI Base Code and to build their knowledge of modern slavery in terms which are meaningful to them. In this sense we have the opportunity to work from inside our supply chain, ‘inside out’ if you will. We go to extreme lengths to understand the context in which our suppliers work; the realities and challenges that they face in responding to our requests. The social and cultural norms which often work in opposition to upholding human rights and frustrate our best efforts.

We walk our supply chains often. We immerse ourselves in the communities surrounding them including those in the remote rural areas from where the raw material is sourced at quarry level. We seek to understand the unique challenges which can make those living and working in rural areas vulnerable to human trafficking. We talk with victims, survivors and advocates to ensure that we truly understand the human cost of this exploitation. We also know that if people are trafficked out of rural areas surrounding our supply chains, then this creates a vacuum into which others can be trafficked. This increases the risk that trafficked and enslaved people will end up involved in the supply chain. We seek to understand then also from the ‘outside in’.

Back at HQ over 8000 miles away we know that Vietnamese nationals are trafficked into the UK, as highlighted by the previous Anti-Slavery Commissioner in his 2017 report. We need no further evidence than the desperate and harrowing news of the bodies of the 39 Vietnamese victims discovered in Essex recently.

In the UK our efforts are focused upon working to ensure that victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, including those from Vietnam, do not end up in our factories, quarries and elsewhere in our business operations. And so a sickening circularity emerges. And yet there are still those who struggle to grasp the interconnectedness of these issues and to fully assume their responsibility to engage. Perhaps they think they have no influence or that this is not their issue. But make no mistake, human rights are everyone’s business; yours and mine.

This work is inherently uncomfortable. It shifts shape, sometimes revealing itself and then fades and become opaque again. It does not in any way lend itself to allowing an organisation to know all, to reach a point of completion or find a moment of satisfaction, because when you really scrutinise your operations and supply chains, genuinely seek to find the ways that you can work to eliminate modern slavery, the complexities are staggering.

There is much more to say, but my intention here was not to be lengthy. I seek only to highlight the absolute interconnectedness of the issues of modern slavery and human trafficking from our business operations in the UK, to the remote quarrying regions in the provinces of Vietnam. And we are not alone here; this is a truth for the supply chains of many.

Elaine Mitchel-Hill is Business & Human Rights Lead at Marshalls – read more of our blog posts on human rights, ethical sourcing and modern slavery by clicking the Lives tab at the top of this page.

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