Anti-slavery legislation is becoming ever tougher, to the obvious benefit of all legitimate, ethical companies in the weaving industry as well as the weavers themselves. But making it all work as it should do will involve due care and attention on all sides, as Nina Smith of GoodWeave explains.
Just before the pandemic lockdown in 2020, I had the good for tune to spend time with Sumitra, a child labour survivor now on track to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. The extreme hardship she and her family faced had led her to dropping out of school and becoming a child carpet weaver at a young age. She was freed when a US rug company joined with GoodWeave and voluntarily participated in our deep supply chain due diligence programme. She was then offered counselling support and the chance to return to school.
Handmade carpets in Nepal and India are among the 159 goods from seventy-eight countries known to be produced by child or forced labour. Now we have proven solutions to stop these abuses; and legal enforcement means business practices must respect basic human rights. Current and pending legislation in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Germany, France and the Netherlands, for example, will require companies to remedy any parts of their supply chains that could infringe on human rights, the environment or good governance.
These laws build on previous ones, such as the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act, which requires UK companies of a certain size to report on how they are addressing modern slavery. A more rigorous US law came into effect in 2016, making illegal the importation of any goods made with forced labour into the United States. Onus is on the importing company to prove that its supply chains are clean before a shipment can be released. Withhold and Release Orders (WROs) issued by the US Customs and Border Protection can be country-specific, such as gold mined in eastern Congo, rough diamonds from the Marange fields in Zimbabwe, and all cotton from Turkmenistan. Company specific WROs have included a range of products, from Malaysian palm oil to garments in India.
I was personally involved in one WRO case related to hand-knotted carpets from Nepal. In December 2020, GoodWeave licensee Emma Gardner Design got in touch when a shipment from Nepal was held up at the Port of San Francisco. Patrick McDarrah, the design company’s president, told us, ‘After a few exchanges, it was revealed why—we were suspected of using forced or child labour at some point in the supply chain/ manufacture of our rugs. Once we understood we needed to address the “hold” at the agency level, rather than at the port of clearance, we immediately engaged GoodWeave and our Congressional delegation.
‘GoodWeave clearly evidenced that our rugs were produced free from forced labour, including child trafficking. Worker interviews, work logs, wage reports, and so for th were diligently produced from myriad sites in Nepal and Washington to the shock of agency legal staff who, admittedly, had never before seen such a flawless defence of baseless charges.’
Nevertheless, it took eight months for the WRO to be modified, therefore removing suspicion of forced labour from the manufacturing and shipment in question. McDarrah says, ‘Thankfully, all of our designers and their clients had learned compassion and patience during the Covid-19 crisis and were fabulous.’
This case and others I have studied reveal two important lessons: 1) Establishing transparent, traceable supply chains isn’t just good practice: it’s legally required to do business globally. Noncompliance with the laws could cost in the form of supply disruption, reputation, customers and market access. 2) There is competitive advantage for companies with credible child and forced labour-free product claims backed up by ample due diligence.
The way to safeguard against forced labour, including child exploitation, is to fully map and monitor supply chains. It is not adequate to engage a social auditor or in-house team for primary factory compliance checks only. Companies need tailored approaches that consider the local context for deep due diligence, remediation and prevention. Customs officials require evidence that an exporter and its full subcontracted production network, including the homebased workers commonly involved in carpet weaving and other textile industries, are checked. Measurable assessments that International Labor Organization (ILO) forced labour indicators are not present, including through worker interviews and documentation of records by a trusted third party, are essential. If child or forced labour are identified, records of how such cases are remediated are also needed. GoodWeave’s Best Practice Series to Eliminate Child Labor in Global Supply Chains (downloadable pdfs) offers fur ther guidance on key elements of a strong due diligence system.
McDarrah stresses that companies need to ask themselves what they are they doing to end forced labour. ‘How do they know the goods they buy, distribute or sell are clean? What would they do if their next import was held and they had to defend against the list of the ILO indicators, such as retention of identity documents, withholding of wages or debt bondage?’
Some 400-plus carpet and home textiles importers and exporters already partnering with GoodWeave can produce and sell goods into countries where human rights laws exist, with a clear understanding that their supply chains are documented and defensible. Many report that earning the right to use the GoodWeave label on their products and communicating their investment in ethical production helps with customer loyalty and employee retention. But for me, the most compelling reason to stop forced labour in supply chains is to let children like Sumitra create a better life for themselves and their families, as well as a better world for all. Nina Smith is the CEO of GoodWeave International, which works to stop child labour in global supply chains through a market-based system and holistic approach. She serves on the boards of the Fair Labor Association and the Better Buying Network.