As businesses settle into 2016, many will be considering and preparing for the new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. As odd as it may initially sound, alongside the usual commercial concerns, many businesses will also have issues like slavery and human trafficking on their minds.
This is because 2016 is the year that the new Modern Slavery Act kicks in for thousands of commercial organisations. This groundbreaking law requires many foreign and domestic companies operating in Britain to investigate and report annually on how they are tackling the risk of slavery in their businesses and global supply chains. Sadly, when it comes to slavery, the battle is far from over as it affects more than 30 million people across the globe. From a legal perspective, the Act is the latest addition to a fast-developing human rights framework for businesses, the core of which lies in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights adopted by the UN in 2011.
While the Modern Slavery Act will mobilise business into taking action, it is notable that the new Act does not contain onerous penalties for non-compliance or lacklustre self-reporting. Instead, it is banking on compliance being driven by pressure from us, the consumers. It is certainly true that reputational risk is a key factor for any business when it comes to human rights. We have seen time and time again that a single allegation or instance of abuse can threaten to undo years of goodwill and careful brand-building.
However, if the Government is to rely so heavily on civil society to police the private sector, it is worth asking first whether we are sufficiently aware of the issues in question to be effective in carrying out such an important role. Few organisations are better placed to advocate against slavery than the Catholic Church. Flourishing in both the world’s richest and poorest countries, the Church is uniquely positioned to act as a credible intermediary between the two in the global fight against this heinous crime.
In fact, no other figurehead in the Catholic Church recognises the weight of this responsibility more than the Holy Father himself. Drawing attention to some of the most pressing challenges in our globalised age, Pope Francis hosted a remarkable conference on modern slavery and climate change last July at the Vatican, during which he said that “human trafficking is a ‘rebound effect’ of environmental degradation”.
It cannot be denied that harming the environment increases global poverty and, in so doing, sows the seeds for slavery and trafficking to take root and spread. Pope Francis’s remarks have since resonated across the globe, with his message foreshadowing the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 deal in Paris last year. In my view, the Catholic Church has a powerful role to play in the global fight against slavery.
But beyond reaching out to consumers and raising international awareness, the Church also has the means to engage with businesses in eradicating slavery and human trafficking. With the Modern Slavery Act requiring business leaders to take a long hard look in the mirror, the Church is well placed to facilitate this process and offer constructive criticism.
Perhaps no other religion’s fate has been so interlinked with slavery as Christianity’s. Our faith emerged within the Roman Empire, where slavery was the bedrock of society. Yet, just as Catholicism evolved from being the religion of the weak and marginalised to that of the world’s greatest empire, so too has its attitude to slavery evolved with the times. The repeated denunciations of slavery by Pope Francis could not be more unequivocal.
Great institutions can and do change with time, support and pressure. As people of faith, we should hold our governments and businesses to the highest standards by demanding action and transparency on slavery, all the while aware that no single group can overcome this terrible crime alone. Moving forward, the Church must continue to work with the public and private spheres, realising the full force of its capacity as a proponent for social justice. Addressing slavery must be a legal, commercial and moral imperative. In an age of political apathy and corporate mistrust, perhaps it is our moral compass that is best placed to lead the way.
Cherie Blair is a barrister and the Founder and Chair of Omnia Strategy LLP