Can data eradicate the billion-dollar slavery business?

The corporate imperative

Ending modern slavery

40.3 million

This is the current, and by some accounts, conservative, estimate of the number of human beings currently enslaved around the world. 

40.3 million is more than the population of the entire state of California – the largest state in the U.S.

It’s the number of monthly users of Uber. More than the number of subscribers to Apple Music®. 

Forced into labor in factories, farms, and construction sites, exploited as sex workers, and sold into arranged marriages, these modern-day slaves are the backbone of a $150 billion economy thriving in the shadows.

Thanks to a joint effort by anti-slavery groups, that veil of secrecy is beginning to be lifted. The International Labour Organization (ILO), the human rights group Walk Free Foundation, and the International Organization for Migration have produced a landmark report which takes the vital first step of accurately identifying exactly how many people are the victims of modern slavery.

The business of slavery

While some 15 million are in forced marriages, a form of sex trafficking, the vast majority of modern slaves (24.9 million) are working in factories, on construction sites, on fishing boats, and in agricultural industries. This makes slave labor a significant part of the global supply chain.

That’s where modern slavery stops being just a humanitarian issue and starts becoming a corporate imperative.

The proliferation of slave labor in the global supply chain has very real business consequences for multinational corporations who are either ignorant to the problem or, worse, consciously ambivalent.

Historically, a global retailer serves as one of the most recognizable examples of the financial and reputational damage that can come from a large corporation being implicated with forced labor. In addition to the financial penalties the company faced, it was also the subject of a global consumer boycott that has since become a case study for the impact of consumer activism in the face of perceived injustice.

More recently, though, as a global network of law enforcement, government agencies and non-governmental organizations have begun to commit significant resources to addressing this issue, the stakes have gotten even higher for corporations.

Critical mass

When the Thomson Reuters Foundation began reporting on the issue of modern slavery more than six years ago, many were unaware of its existence and doubted the severity of the issue.

We have now reached a tipping point where the confluence of government, corporate, mainstream press, and public interest has begun to catalyze real action in the forms of financial support and government regulation.

Laws such as the UK Modern Slavery Act, French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law, U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act, and a host of regional anti-money laundering and know your customer regulations can all come into play when multinational corporations knowingly or unwittingly get into business with foreign third parties that are involved with illicit activity. 

As an example, the FCPA, which has been enforced aggressively by the U.S. in recent years, racked up a total of $2.48 billion, paid by 27 companies in 2016 alone – the biggest enforcement year in FCPA history.  

Beyond the reputational and moral implications of knowingly or unwittingly supporting slavery, the threat of penalties on this scale creates some incentive for multinational corporations to get serious about eradicating the crime from their supply chains.

Fortunately, thanks to the last decade of increased compliance controls and technological innovation that make it easier to spot the red flags associated with these types of crimes, corporations are in the best position ever to confront this challenge. 

Chapter Two

Steps to end modern slavery

Slave labor is an estimated $150 billion business managed by networks of third parties, shell corporations often backed by organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorist organizations that go to great lengths to hide their true identities. 

As governments around the world ratchet up enforcement on anti-money laundering, anti-slavery, and anti-bribery laws that can be used as blunt instruments to punish companies who miss or ignore these red flags, the need for corporations to get serious about rooting criminal activity out of their supply chains has never been greater.

Step 1: Know Your Customer

At the center of this issue are know your customer (KYC) regulations, which are foundational to virtually every major nation’s financial regulatory framework. In most basic terms, the regulations require financial firms and other businesses to be able to accurately identify their clients, agents, consultants, and other vendors and confirm that they are compliant with anti-money laundering and anti-bribery laws.

Overseen by a global patchwork of authorities in different parts of the world, the regulations vary by country, but follow a similar pattern. In the U.S., for example, KYC provisions are embedded in the Bank Secrecy Act, the Money Laundering Control Act, the PATRIOT Act, and others, and are enforced by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In the UK, they are part of the Money Laundering Regulations and enforced by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), HM Revenue and Customs, the Law Society, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Complying with these regulations has become a massive business challenge for multinational corporations who must now have visibility into every corner of their global operations. Consider the case of one bank, in which it agreed to a US$1.3 billion deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 for “failure to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and to conduct appropriate due diligence on its foreign correspondent account holders.”

The investigation found that holes in its AML and KYC programs which allowed at least US$88 million in drug-trafficking proceeds from Mexican and Colombian drug cartels to be laundered through its branches in the U.S.

Step 2: Follow the money

More recently, a large Australian bank was accused of violating the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act more than 57,000 times for failures to report A$5.8 billion in suspicious ATM deposits. Each of these 57,000 violations carries a maximum penalty of A$18 million.

The root of the issue was a simple product integration oversight: The bank’s new “intelligent deposit machines” were the subject of a programming error that prevented AML and transaction monitoring departments from recognizing that large cash deposits were being made at the ATMs.

While it may not be immediately clear how these examples are related to modern slavery, it is critical to recognize that human trafficking has been identified as one of the most frequent predicate crimes for money laundering. 

According to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which sets the recognized global standard in anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing regulations, a great deal of the money being laundered through our financial system is generated through the illicit buying and selling of human beings. 

What does this mean for all of those who are responsible for vetting customer relationships and conducting due diligence in major financial institutions and multinational corporations? Follow the money and you will find the human traffickers.

Given the deep penetration of criminal networks into global supply chains and financial systems and the groundswell of regulations that have been developed to root them out, the corporate watchdog has strangely become the stakeholder with the most to gain by spotting the red flags that are the signals of modern slavery.

Step 3: Mobilize your secret agents

In the mid-1980s, at the height of his reign as the biggest drug dealer in the world, Pablo Escobar was losing $2 billion in cash each year due to spoilage, the result of having to store his profits in rundown warehouses and buried in the jungles and farmlands of Colombia. Today, Escobar’s money would have likely been diffused throughout a complex network of shell companies and stored safely on the electronic ledgers of the global banking industry.

Despite the dramatic shift in the methods criminal enterprises and terrorist groups use to hide their tracks – and the far-reaching impact of these changes on financial institutions – the process of policing this activity is still rooted very much in 30-year-old best practices. That needs to change. Those who are in the best position to lead that change are the compliance officers of today’s global financial institutions and corporations. But they are going to need help in the form of new technology and a culture shift that puts compliance at the center of global anti-crime efforts.

At first blush, it may sound a little strange to picture a multinational corporation’s finance and compliance professionals as the tip of the sword in the fight against modern slavery. Few of these departments would be mistaken as central casting for the next James Bond movie. Beneath that understated appearance, however, lies the only group of people in the world who have the complete purview into the financial system that 21st century criminals currently leverage to finance their enterprises. 

The chief compliance officer of a financial institution, for example, has eyes and ears everywhere, from new client on-boarding to ongoing transaction monitoring. It is a prime perch for spotting crime. Likewise, legal, tax, and finance departments are in a unique position to spot the kinds of trends and anomalies that are often the first red flags for foul play.

Under industry standard practices, however, this visibility is limited by both time and budget constraints. Even with the most stringent policies in place, it is physically impossible for a corporation to spot and investigate every potential red flag using the linear, manual approach to risk management. Empowered with the right technology, and a clear mandate to call out the types of irregularities that are consistent with patterns of crime, however, the vast resources of today’s multinationals can be leveraged in the fight against modern slavery.

Step 4: Data is your weapon

With the latest corporate compliance and due diligence technology, it is now relatively inexpensive and efficient to cross-reference disparate data sets to identify complex relationships and affiliations that could signal a bad risk or a more complex relationship in a firm acting on behalf of a criminal enterprise. Tools like Thomson Reuters World-Check® are able to help compliance professionals go far beyond criminal background checks and database screens. These comprehensive risk analyses can include everything from negative media to voluntary associations to links with political campaigns and officials to digital relationships via social media.

The process also needs to extend beyond the compliance department. Today, IT departments, data scientists, and even finance tax professionals with visibility into the global supply chain, all need to coordinate efforts to address a risk that is equally diffuse throughout our economies. At Thomson Reuters, for example, a team of data scientists in Thomson Reuters Labs helped organize a hackathon called Hacktrafficking4Good, which brought together hundreds of hackers, law enforcement officials, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and several other public and private sector participants to find new ways to use data and analytics to map patterns of sex trafficking in U.S. cities.

The full-scale embrace of this kind of tech-forward, innovative thinking has the power to redefine the way we approach modern slavery and ultimately prosecute its offenders. If leveraged properly, it also has the power to spot potential risks at the point of inception, before they can metastasize into much bigger problems for the communities in which we live.

As we enter an age in which big data and sophisticated analytics are being used to accurately anticipate trends in retail sales and optimize healthcare benefit designs, it is high time we embrace the same technology to suffocate modern slavery by removing it from supply chains.

Chapter Three

Commitment to change

It’s clear that dramatic change is needed to end a global problem as massive as modern slavery.

What’s less clear is the path to making change happen. While law enforcement agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and government officials have all committed resources to the problem, multinational corporations are in the best position to make a real difference.

That’s why the Thomson Reuters Foundation has developed the Stop Slavery Award, a global initiative that recognizes companies that have taken concrete steps to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains. Committed to proving that business can play a critical role in putting an end to modern slavery worldwide, the program, now in its second year, spotlights companies who have embraced the corporate imperative to stop slavery and have taken a leadership role in showing the world how it can be done.

Adidas was named the overall winner of the second Stop Slavery Award in November, alongside fellow winners C&A, Intel and The Co-operative Group. The German sportswear giant was hailed for its transparent audits, strong responsible sourcing guidelines, and robust tools to trace higher-risk supply chains.

Companies are assessed by a panel of independent judges based on a series of objective measures, which include each company’s response to existing regulatory standards, such as the UK Modern Slavery Act and U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulation, and best practices, such as the Know the Chain Benchmarking Methodology and Business Authentication Criteria. 

Our commitment to supporting change 

At Thomson Reuters, we are committed to being part of the global effort to ending modern slavery, through a number of efforts across the company.

We strive to be a global role model for ethical business conduct. We are a member of the United Nations Global Compact, and align our business to the compact’s Ten Principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anticorruption. The compact includes “the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor” as a fundamental responsibility. 

Our full Modern Slavery Act Transparency Statement can be found here.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation plays a thought leadership role in the fight against slavery and trafficking by raising awareness of the crime through authoritative reporting and journalism training, by providing free legal assistance and research to anti-slavery organizations, and by convening all the key players in the global fight against modern-day slavery at the Trust Conference.

And, as a world leader in supply chain intelligence and third-party risk management, we help companies stamp out forced labor by arming them with the tools, technology, and data needed to bring new levels of transparency to global operations.