There is increasing pressure for an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention to improve human rights in global supply chains. Within these discussions, cross-border legal liability is a particularly hot topic – this would mean that companies could be held accountable for serious human rights abuses throughout their supply chains.

Ensuring better human rights in global supply chains was intensely discussed at the ILO’s International Labour Conference in Geneva in June 2016 and this was followed up at the ILO’s governing body meeting in Geneva in November. For many a new convention is being seen as a next step to eradicate poverty, forced labour and other modern slavery offences.

In the meantime, the ILO’s governing body has wasted no time in deciding to implement immediately a comprehensive programme of action with a focus on research, the development of an ILO knowledge base and capacity building. In 2017 we can expect a tripartite meeting of experts to identify possible action to protect the human rights of workers in export processing zones (EPZs). In addition, in 2018 a meeting will be held on cross-border dialogue between companies and trade unions to address human rights in global supply chain issues, including human rights due diligence. A follow up report will be produced by the ILO in 2019 when a further discussion regarding the merits of a new ILO can be anticipated.

During these discussions, the measures contained in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act have been welcomed, particularly to ‘raise the profile of the issue’, of human rights in global supply chains. Indeed it has been positive that some companies have published slavery and human trafficking statements, fully meeting the guidance that accompanied the Act. However, the generally held view is compliance overall with the Act has been decidedly patchy. The opinion of many in civil society is that the statements that have been published lack meaningful content, which is fuelling the desire for private sector business to do far more. This ignores the inherent risks for business in reporting upon the existence of modern slavery in its supply chains.

What is clear is that if more businesses do not engage and comply with the Act, then there will be less likelihood of evidence being gathered showing that the Act has led to reduced slavery in supply chains. If this transpires then the clamour for a new ILO convention dealing with cross-border liability in supply chains will increase; understandably so. Business needs to understand that many want to see an international level-playing field with companies facing extra-territorial accountability for the way their products are produced in developing countries.

Clearly companies that comply fully with the Act and other similar legislation will be better prepared as and when tougher laws on global accountability for labour rights appear. Business should be forewarned. The case for complying with the Act sooner rather than later is increasing.

Chris Syder is the UK employer representative at the ILO’s governing body and headed the UK employer delegation at this June’s ILO International Labour Conference.