Has Covid-19 increased the risk of exploitation in your sector? Evidence suggests it has in wholesale, retail, construction, manufacturing, accommodation and food services, according to a rapid-review for the Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC), see Hesketh & Johnstone, 2021.
While Covid-19 has focused attention on social sustainability – sadly, it has magnified risks to it, leading to some work that is potentially unfit for people to do, with increased forced-labour risk in supply chains outside UK. Concerningly, the research found even where organisations in the UK assigned more priority to modern slavery risk, it was still less than for commercial matters. Certain brands reported being unable to undertake standard due diligence and 17% of procurement managers’ surveyed reported placing less priority on modern slavery issues (Pinnington. B, et al, 2021).
Worryingly, less support and scrutiny mean that the pandemic and demand-volatility have worsened economic fragility and the safety, health and wellbeing of vulnerable workers. For example, where contracts have been cancelled in low- and middle-income countries, workers have lost much-needed wages and security. Others have experienced demand-spikes, with associated work-load pressures, long working hours and infection risk (see fig.1) (Hesketh & Johnstone, 2021).
Figure 1: pandemic-related negatives for vulnerable workers, based on PEC work
So, how can OSH professionals help link ethical practice to reputation, resilience and results and progress the UN goals of decent work and responsible production? Making this linkage especially matters given the Pinnington report finding that while 41% of respondents cited ‘company reputation’ as a driver for increased supply chain visibility – only 28% cited ethical issues, appearing to disconnect the two. Crucially, while additional supply chain mapping to address disruptions is reported, visibility needs to be better used to support ethical operations and closer supplier relationships.
Within and between organisations, OSH professionals can raise awareness of modern slavery risks across supply chains and promote training, due diligence, supply chain mapping, and cross-functional prevention work. We can encourage managers to think about the pandemic’s ongoing impact on vulnerable workers, and extend ethical practice beyond tier 1, to direct suppliers’ suppliers (tier 2) and on through their supply chains, so that all work is safe, healthy and fit for people to do. Critically, we can make the case for ethical operations as vital to social value and disclosures, helping build reputation for responsible business delivery with clients, investors, insurers, regulators, consumers and workers. And we can highlight the links between public-policy, OSH and social sustainability, urging policymakers to consider emerging lessons and supportive action, as outlined in Hesketh & Johnstone, 2021 (see fig.2).
Figure 2: pandemic-related positive measures, based on PEC work
OSH professionals advocate improved OSH management, transparency and ‘licensing’ for at-risk sectors, such as construction, continuing to flag the plight of the estimated 40 million people enslaved across the world, see Tackling modern slavery together. During the pandemic, following the identification of unacceptably poor conditions in garment factories in the UK, the government has been exploring ‘licensing’ and a potential ‘Garment Trade Adjudicator’.
In addition to making policy-proposals, OSH professionals can evaluate OSH performance, inform research and disseminate findings, helping influence corporate decisions and governance to support OSH and people’s rights. And, as well as sharing good practice, promoting positive measures (see fig.2) and contributing to developing standards, we also help operationalise them, including those on OHS management systems, psychosocial risk, governance and sustainable procurement and the forthcoming BS 25700 (modern slavery), open for comment until 23 February.
IOSH training: Catch the Wave and Modern Day Slavery; COVID e-learning; Corporate Governance and IOSH’s social sustainability campaign.
Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) training: see course and video case studies
PEC research: Modern Slavery & Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC).
Pinnington B, Meehan J and Trautrims A. (2021). Implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for modern slavery challenges in supply chain management.
Hesketh O & Johnstone O. (2021). Policy brief: Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery (Modern Slavery PEC Policy Brief 2021-4).
Hesketh O & Johnstone O. (2021). Assessment of evidence – Annex to Policy brief: Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery.
Richard Jones CFIOSH is former head of policy at IOSH.