Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Data is helping weed out bad actors in the supply chain and cutting off their banking access

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Amnesty International activists wearing T-shirts reading 'end modern slavery' protest against human trafficking in Athens, Greece ( LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images )


Around 40.3 million people are enslaved around the world today according to estimates, and it affects everything you touch. From slaves being used to mine cobalt for gadgets or harvesting the coffee you drink, it’s an insidious aspect of the globalised world.

“It’s very sad when you look at the stats published, 5.4 persons per 1,000 people in the world. And that’s more than the days before slavery was ‘abolished’,” says Chris Laws, head of UK product and strategy at Dun & Bradstreet, global provider of businesses envisioning data and analytics.

Companies like Dun & Bradstreet are using the reams and reams of data they hold on businesses throughout the world to try and tackle the issues of modern slavery and help corporations make better decisions about where they spend their money.

Big corporations use information held on Dun & Bradstreet’s files to see if a potential vendor they’re looking to work with is in an industry that is potentially high-risk, such as in the extractive industry in Africa. It can also flag where a potential vendor could be working with a risky supplier. “For instance, you are buying from a wholesaler of seafood products based in the UK or perhaps Europe that doesn’t look high risk. But you look at the subcontractors, and they can move into a much higher risk category.”

There’s been a renewed focus recently on the supply chain and how this can harbour bad actors. The UK government recently introduced new measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to ensure responsible practices in supply chains. “Sadly, we know that no sector is immune from the risks of modern slavery which can be hidden in the supply chains of the everyday goods and services we all buy and use,” said safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins in a statement. “We expect businesses and public bodies to be open about their risks, including where they have found instances of exploitation and to demonstrate how they are taking targeted and sustained action to tackle modern slavery.”

Laws and his team will work with clients to find potential suppliers, then check the industry its in and information around this, before running the names of the owners of the business through grey or blacklist checks.

Things get more sophisticated with the help of companies like Quantexa. The London-based software start-up was founded nearly five years ago to focus on financial data analysis. Basically Quantexa’s tech helps make connections across different datasets to build a picture of networks and relationships, something that is crucial in the fight against modern slavery. “When we look at criminal activity, businesses form a core part of the operations. They act as fronts, as the logistics components and to launder the funds from those operations,” explains co-founder and head of FinCrime compliance Alexon Bell.

Often, when a convicted trafficker leaves prison, they go straight back to their previous work, establishing similar businesses and operations as they were doing before they were convicted. Quantexa works with Dun & Bradstreet and Dow Jones to follow these operators via the corporate data. The idea is that by tracking them, the start-up can work with banks to ensure they’re not allowing these types of actors to bank with them. It's thought forced labour generates £116 billion in illegal profits for the private industry. “The whole purpose of this is to strangle the financial flow of these criminal organisations and shut them out as much as possible," says Bell.

Cutting off the financial side is one thing. But consumers can also play a role here too. You only have to look back to this summer when Boohoo was under criticism for the poor treatment of workers in its Leicester supply chain, including low wages and lack of safety precautions during Covid-19. Though the retailer was recently cleared of criminality in an independent investigation, it has cast a shadow over the company's reputation.

Platforms such as the Modern Slavery Registry allow consumers to search for a particular company and see its reporting under the UK Modern Slavery Act. Powered by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the platform scrapes statements from companies and collates it into this database. You can search using specific words such as “human rights due diligence” or “living wage” to check what a particular company is doing. This year, the platform added a new Covid-19 Apparel Action Tracker to monitor what companies are doing in relation to the pandemic. KnowTheChain also assesses global companies on their efforts to address forced labour.

The potential to damage reputations can be enough to get corporations to act. This reputational risk can motivate companies to step up and realise that there may have been issues that have been overlooked. “At the end of the day, it comes down to a cost to their business to do or not do something,” says Laws.

It’s not always just about finding a rogue operator and not working with them again. In fact, Laws says this can be almost worse in a way because it doesn’t change the behaviour. “If your ethical policy is to stop slavery, then you could continue to engage and work with them in a way that helps them to understand how to change their behaviour, start to pay a fair wage, and ultimately get more business instead of having to do it through bonded labour.”

By encouraging businesses to route out bad actors in the supply chain, to financial crime analysis from Quantexa and consumers making informed decisions, all these tactics can add up to have a real impact. Ultimately, it comes from a recognition that there needs to be a change, and the data can help with this.

“We need to start to see businesses take action, ask the right questions of their suppliers, use simple solutions,” Laws adds. “There’s many solutions out there, whether it’s data-led or directly talking to your suppliers. It’s not someone else’s issue.”

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