• Linda Ellett, Partner |
4 min read

The pandemic tested organisations’ values in multiple ways and consumers noticed some of the disparities in how different organisations treated their customers, staff and communities. This hasn’t abated. From a social and ethical standpoint, consumers are looking to business to drive change and ensure no one is left behind. As part of this, respect for human rights and decent work for decent pay are simply a must – and this applies as much here in the UK as it does in far-flung parts of the global supply chain.

Sadly, there are still many, many people who are vulnerable to abuse and forced labour. A recent study by the World Benchmarking Alliance looking at 1,000 key companies, across more than 60 countries, confirmed some very sobering statistics: 99 percent of companies failed to demonstrate the fundamentals of socially responsible business conduct.

In this context, I was delighted to be joined at the latest In Conversation event by Dr Meg Brodie, partner in KPMG Banarra Australia who leads KPMG’s Business & Human Rights Network, and Lina Hilwani from KPMG UK’s ESG and Supply Chain team.

A fundamental building block

We began by discussing that respect for human rights is quite simply one of the foundational starting points for responsible commerce. Good business is getting the balance right between all stakeholders – and that includes colleagues, both direct and those in the supply chain. If that balance gets out of sync, problems can start arising.

But while that sounds simple in theory, there’s no doubt that ensuring respect for human rights standards across the supply chain is in fact very difficult. In today’s business landscape, supply chains have become more complex, opaque and elongated than ever.

Many organisations’ supply chains span the globe, therefore they need to respect and understand cultural differences in the world. A base level of understanding is needed to appreciate unique parts of a particular culture and what may be the norms there, while also identifying agreed standards of right and wrong that will be universal requirements across the supply chain.  

Hearing the worker voice

One key challenge is making sure workers have the mechanisms they need to speak up and make their voice heard. We often forget that huge chunks of the world are still not digitally enabled. This means that many people don’t have mobile phones and may not be able to communicate outside their circle.

This became a key theme in our conversation, and was something that Dr Meg Brodie picked up on.

“It’s fundamental to seek out the worker voice,” she said. “Vulnerable voices need to be brought into the Boardroom. I once worked with a client where that happened. The Board was really grappling with the information they were receiving – but you have to enable those lines of communication. Managing the governance around human rights and modern slavery has become a key challenge that executives are facing.”

How to make headway?

These complexities demonstrate just how difficult it is to stay attuned to what’s happening across long and complex value chains. But the good news is that organisations don’t have to start from scratch - there are initiatives they can join like the Consumer Goods Forum’s Human Rights Coalition that has programmes businesses can adopt. It builds on the recognition that no one organisation can do it all by themselves – it’s got to be a collaborative and collegiate effort.

Coalitions of this kind can be really effective because they help organisations talk openly about the real-life issues they’re facing. And unless you talk about it, you can’t solve it. It’s only by lifting the bonnet that you know what’s under there. We have to let businesses do that without fear of being seen as the ‘bad guys’.

Dr Meg Brodie also had some constructive advice for businesses looking to progress in their agenda. “You need senior accountability. It’s when an organisation appoints someone to lead this who has positional power and also personal influence underpinned by a passion for the issues that I’ve seen real success. That’s the foundation – everything else will flow from that. Another factor that’s truly powerful is when businesses empower their people to be part of solving this. Staff need to know that when they raise a flag, you will have their back, support them, and follow up on their concern.”

Different organisations are at different points in their journey. But as Lina Hilwani observed, “Just starting a conversation around this can have a catalysing effect. Define your key metrics – but don’t let that process delay action and discovery itself.”

More important now than ever

Many companies are responding and embedding good practice, demonstrating that tackling the issue is indeed possible. It’s about resilient economics that keeps its human values and doesn’t leave people behind. And this has to apply whatever the economic weather – there can’t be any softening of commitments because of inflation and cost pressures, for example. Indeed, the cost of living crisis and the various economic, social and military challenges currently being seen around the world make this more important now than ever.

It was truly a thought-provoking and inspiring discussion and it is clear we all have a role to play. I encourage everyone to ask the question of their own employer – how are we tackling this? What are we doing to embed human decency and basic standards across our value chain, and what can we do to make progress even faster?

Find out more and talk to our experts:

If you would like to continue the conversation, please contact Linda Ellett or Dr Meg Brodie.