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Human Rights and Corporate Supply Chains: How to Prevent UK Companies from Profiting from Slave Labour

The Labour Party Annual Conference 2021

SME4Labour, Labour Campaign for Human Rights and Labour Campaign for International Development Fringe: Human Rights and Corporate Supply Chains: How to Prevent UK Companies from Profiting from Slave Labour

UK companies are profiting from slave labour abroad, the Modern Slavery Act is no longer fit for purpose, and the Conservative Government has shown zero interest in meaningful reform. Whilst there have been valiant efforts to hold UK parent companies to account in the English courts for overseas abuses by subsidiaries, lasting change needs to come from Parliament. The UK was world-leading when it introduced the Modern Slavery Act, but is now rapidly falling behind.

What can the UK Government to do hold British companies to account for profiting from human rights abuses overseas?  Do we need a mandatory human rights due diligence (mHRDD) law? How would that work? Would it change corporate behaviour? Would this be part of a Labour Government’s ethical foreign / trade policy?

o Chair: Matthew Turner, Labour Campaign for Human Rights

o Speaker: Emily Thornberry MP

o Speaker: Stephen Kinnock MP

o Speaker: Mark Dearn, Corporate Justice Coalition

o Speaker: Daniel Leader, Leigh Day

o Speaker: Rahima Mahmut, World Uyghur Congress (UK Director)

Event Summary:

Our event “Human Rights and Corporate Supply Chains: How to Prevent UK Companies From Profiting From Slave Labour” – brought together a stellar panel to discuss what more the UK Government can do to hold British companies to account for profiting from human rights abuses overseas. Our panel of speakers including Emily Thornberry MP – Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Stephen Kinnock MP – Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Dearn – Corporate Justice Coalition, Matthew Turner – Labour Campaign for Human Rights, Daniel Leader – Lawyer at Leigh Day, and Rahima Mahmut – World Uyghur Congress came together to discuss a range of issues including: if we need a mandatory human rights due diligence (mHRDD) law, how that would work, if it would change corporate behaviour and would it be part of a Labour Government’s ethical foreign / trade policy.
Our event kicked off with Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Emily Thornberry MP who discussed the issue of modern slavery at length, considering the Government’s failure to act effectively to address slavery and what more the Government must do to address modern slavery both at home and abroad. Thornberry outlined what steps the next Labour Government would take to challenge both countries and businesses who seek to exploit slave labour for profit. Thornberry outlined the vital role business must play in tackling modern slavery in the supply chain but stressed far more must be done by Governments across the world to address what remains one of the 21st centuries greatest crimes.

Our next speaker was Rahima Mahmut of the World Uyghur Congress who spoke passionately about the ongoing plight of the Uyghur people in China. Mahmut spoke at length and in detail about the ongoing discrimination and prejudice against the Uyghur people, explaining that since 2017, approximately 800,000 to 2 million “religious minorities “, including Uyghurs, have been forced into re-education camps designed to eradicate their culture, including forcing the Uyghur people to renounce their religion and swear oaths of loyalty to the Chinese state. Mahmut explained that Chinese President Xi Jinping has, while not outright referred to the detainment of Uyghurs has referred to “toxic religious extremism”, advocating for “the tools of a dictatorship to eliminate Islamist extremism”. Mahmut explained that these camps and the ongoing policies of the Chinese Government towards the Uyghur people amounts to genocide by both the eradication of Uyghur culture, and the removal of the Uyghur people from Xinjiang province or East Turkistan. Mahmut who fled China for the United Kingdom, went on to stress the importance of the oral tradition in ensuringing Uyghur culture is continued by the diaspora of Uyghurs across the world. Rahima Mahmut finished by stressing that we can all do our part to raise awareness of the Uyghur genocide by writing to our MPs, supporting endeavours such as the World Uyghur Congress, or even signing a petition. Mahmut stressed that whilst the actions we take as individuals cannot bring an end to the Uyghur genocide, it is our responsibility to use our voices to help to alleviate the suffering of the Uyghur people.

Next up to speak was Steven Kinnock MP and Shadow Foreign Minister for Asia and the Pacific who focused his thoughts on the role China must play with regard to the exploitation of slave labour, especially in the context of the ongoing oppression of Uyghurs in China. Kinnock stressed the important role the UK must play in challenging China, focusing on the importance of highlighting abuses as well as challenging China on our values – which must be a priority of both this Government and a future Labour Government. Kinnock stressed the essential role the UK must play in challenging slave labour in the supply chain, stressing the UK must remain a leader in human rights and that the Government must ensure profits are not prioritised over challenging exploitative practices both at home and abroad.

Our panel also heard from Mark Dearn of the Corporate Justice Coalition and Daniel Leader of Leigh Day who both spoke in detail on the challenges of addressing global slavery and the prevalence and extent to which modern slavery is present in the global economy and supply chains. Mark Dearn considered the impact of slavery on the global economy, considering the extent of rising inequality, modern slavery and the continued expansion of insecure work where a predominance of short-term contracts or other non-standard forms of employment and both informal work and modern slavery are not only growing but increasingly prevalent in the supply chains of large corporations. Daniel Leader of Leigh Day also offered a full exploration of the legal challenges faced by Governments and corporations across the world in both addressing modern slavery and what more Governments can do from a legal perspective in challenging the scandal that is modern slavery.

Our event: “Human Rights and Corporate Supply Chain: How to Prevent UK Companies From Profiting From Slave Labour” brought together a panel of expert speakers to consider what more Governments across the world can do to address modern slavery, as well as what additional legal steps must be taken to address the issue. We heard about what steps a future Labour Government would take to address modern slavery, the ongoing plight of the Uyghur people and what more the British Government must do to ensure profits are not prioritised over human dignity and human rights.

Human Rights and Corporate Supply Chains: How to Prevent UK Companies from Profiting from Slave Labour

Daniel Leader specialises in international human rights and environmental law, with a particular focus on business and human rights.   He has extensive experience of cases against parent companies, complex group actions and mass tort claims, as well as cross-border disputes and jurisdictional issues.

Mark Dearn, Director, Corporate Justice Coalition.

Mark joined Corporate Justice Coalition from the Labour Party, where he was a strategic communications adviser in the Leader’s office, with a particular focus on international development, trade and foreign policy.

Prior to that he was a senior campaigner at War on Want, where he was also a board member of the UK Trade Justice Movement and a member of the Seattle to Brussels Network coordination group. He has also previously worked for NGOs including End Water Poverty and IBON International. Before this he worked as a journalist for local, national and foreign publications.

Emily Thornberry is a politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Islington South and Finsbury since 2005. A member of the Labour Party, she has served as Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade since 2020. She had previously served in the Shadow Cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn as Shadow First Secretary of State from 2017 to 2020 and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2016 to 2020.

Stephen Kinnock is a Welsh Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Aberavon since the 2015 general election. Stephen is Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific.

Rahima Mahmut is a Uyghur singer, human rights activist and the award-winning translator of the poignant prison memoir “The Land Drenched in Tears” by Soyungul Chanishe.  She is the UK Project Director for the World Uyghur Congress.

Matthew Turner is Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, where his main areas of focus are corporate supply chains and economic, social and cultural rights. He is also a practising barrister at Crown Office Chambers, specialising in personal injury, clinical negligence, inquests and public inquiries. Matthew is also an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress (UK) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign.