Last week, Apple and Unilever received the Thomas Reuters Foundation’s Stop Slavery Award for their recent efforts to clean two of the highest risk supply chains in the world. According to the BBC, in a bid to help reduce modern slavery, Apple has recently made details of its supply chains public and is now going to partner with the NGO International Organization for Migration to start a new programme to help human trafficking victims get jobs at Apple’s retail locations. In the same breath, Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman has been awarded for his ongoing fight to reduce employee exploitation within the tycoon’s supply chain. And while I see the positive steps that have been taken by these giants, I remain sceptical of the premise of such an award: Unilever and Apple are just working to fix a systemic exploitative scheme they have both been relying on for years.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 25 million people are estimated to be working as slaves in factories, fields, mines etc., making the modern slavery industry extremely profitable for traffickers (the illicit business of human trafficking and forced labour has generated $150 billion) with giant corporations often complicit in this racket. And both Apple and Unilever are publicly known for their dubious track record when it comes to the violation of human rights and our environment.
Following the mounting criticism from labour rights groups toward Apple and its biggest manufacturing partner Foxconn (infamously known for a series of scandals relating to the working conditions in its Chinese factories, including the high number of employee suicides), since 2012, Apple has been working hard to make transparency in its supply chain a top priority. “As a company whose work touches the lives of so many people, we feel we have an enormous responsibility … to turn our values into action,” said Angela Ahrendts, head of retail at Apple, during the conference at the Thomas Reuters Foundation. And as far as we know, Apple has been working hard to reduce the number of underaged workers in their extended supply chain and to ensure their contractors support the “no passport withholding” policy, which makes sure foreign contract employees are protected from human trafficking.
The pressing requests for transparency coming from both governments and consumers have sparked a momentum for actual changes within these corporations’ policy, and yet, it is hard not to feel the hypocrisy behind such a prize. “While it shouldn’t be necessary to reward companies for taking steps to stop slavery in their business, we should recognise that some companies, such as Apple, are doing more than others to be transparent about how they are tackling slavery in the supply chain,” said Peter Frankental, Amnesty U.K.’s business and human rights programme director.
Like Peter Frankental told BBC, the attempts made by both Apple and Unilever to create a more transparent supply chain should not be undermined. Neither do I intend to fall into a simplistic view of a world divided between the bad and the good guys. I don’t necessarily hate the players (who doesn’t love Apple?), but I do hate the game which grants these companies an award for doing the minimum required; to not employ underaged workers nor set eleven-hour shifts for strenuous manual labour in factories, mines and fields. Rewarding Apple and Unilever the Stop Slavery Award is like giving citizens an award for recycling or for performing everyday civic duties. We are sanctioned if we spray paint a bus stop and we do not receive awards for simply acting as decent citizens and not spray painting our cities.
It feels as though giant corporations are constantly tapping themselves on the shoulder for taking basic action when it comes to their responsibility over their employees rights, the environmental toll of their manufacturing, the executive salaries and tax evasion and we just go along cheer and forget that for years they have been committing human and environmental offences on a monumental scale. So hurrah! They are cleaning after their mess, but it is with a bittersweet aftertaste that I celebrate Apple and Unilever’s recent prize. To me, the years of dubious reputations cannot be erased with an award and a well scripted speech.