The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos brings together world leaders to discuss pressing global issues, to foster collaborative problem solving and set the economic, industrial, environmental and societal agenda for the year.  One of these pressing global issues is modern slavery. With more than 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, governments are finally realising that a coordinated global effort is required to stop the forces enabling it. In this piece, Michael Rogerson explores the challenges of addressing modern slavery in Higher Education.

In recent years, the attention paid to modern slavery has steadily grown. The column inches, documentaries and activist reports dedicated to the subject have proliferated, building awareness of the scale of the problem. As public scrutiny has increased, so (some) firms have begun to take labour abuses in their supply chains seriously. Now the issue has reached the rarefied airs of Davos, where the world’s rich and powerful will mull over the problem.

Several nations have already enacted laws, aimed at forcing corporations to address the problem. In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires commercial organisations which turnover £36m or more a year to report on the issue annually. The ultimate aim was to encourage firms to disclose potential labour exploitations they may face in their supply chains and take action to mitigate those risks. In practice, however, few organizations opt to go above and beyond, instead electing for the minimum requirement – writing a board-approved statement.

The higher education sector is unique in that institutions are considered sufficiently commercial to fall within the purview of the Act while also being subject to public procurement laws. Moreover, the sector’s complex supply chains are worth over £13bn a year. The combination of the sector’s ingrained public mission and highly visible status (see recent controversies around value for money and executive pay) make it vulnerable to criticism regardless of the difficulties inherent in managing long, international value chains.

Mindful of these factors, universities have complied at a rate far exceeding commercial organisations. Fewer than 80% of commercial entities have published a statement since the Act came into force, compared to over 90% of universities. While that gap closes somewhat when full compliance is considered, only 23% of organisations have a Board approved and signed statement on the home page of their website, against over 30% of HE institutions.

However, the seriousness with which the sector has approached the law has yet to be converted into significant meaningful action in supply chains. The structure of university procurement, in which geographically-focused consortia negotiate on behalf of each region’s institutions, has offered great value for decades and, more recently, a set of hubs for knowledge sharing around issues of sustainability. At the same time, though, this model has meant that universities have not had to manage supply chains – a critical capability for combatting modern slavery - and therefore do not currently have the capacity to do so.

With modern slavery a business-critical issue, it is Corporate Social Responsibility rather than value which has driven organisations to learn to manage their supply chain. However, most organisations had some visibility into their supply chains before the Modern Slavery Act came into force. Universities now need to convert higher-than-average levels of basic compliance into meaningful action by reconnecting with their suppliers. The public spirit in which higher education operates lends itself to that. But if that mission proves insufficient, greater public scrutiny of the sector’s efforts is surely not far behind.

Photo by Ryan Kosmides on Unsplash

Posted in: Business and society, Decent Work, Education, Human rights, Modern slavery, Supply chains


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