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As M&S completes its first ever International Human Rights conference, Louise Nicholls, Head of Human Rights at M&S, calls for greater collaboration and education to bolster the fight against Modern Slavery

Looking at London today it’s hard to believe that only a little under 200 years ago we had no railways, no high-rise buildings, the Metropolitan Police was in its infancy and slavery was a booming trade.

Today we are surrounded by skyscrapers, we have transport systems that connect London with the rest of the UK and even Europe, the Met does tremendous job day-in-day-out and yet slavery – all-be-it in a different guise – continues to be a plague that blights our society.

Despite being universally outlawed, it is estimated by Walk Free and the International Labour Organisation that some 40.9 million people across the world are in some form of slavery today. Abuse of workers through forced labour or sexual trafficking is widely condemned and yet the reality is that it takes place right in front of us in all walks of life.

The Modern Slavery Act in 2015 ensured that in the UK, law enforcement powers can combat it and support and protect victims. This has been wholeheartedly supported by the business community particularly in the City of London and it has been a game changer. For the first time, not only do big companies need to publicly report on ethical activity, but so do small, medium and large suppliers. It is about understanding and recognising that the major risks of human rights abuses are not on the surface or in plain sight, but often many tiers down through complex supply chains.

We have recently acted to strengthen our Global Sourcing Principles which aim ensure that our suppliers' employees are provided with good working conditions and fair pay. Our principles now dictate, for example, a prohibition of the payment of direct or indirect recruitment fees to secure a job and require suppliers and partners to have adequate due diligence in place. Both these moves have been welcomed by the human rights community.

Last week we hosted our latest Human Rights Conference, this time in India. The conference aimed to provide information and practical tools for suppliers on addressing the complexities of human rights within business, as well as sharing experiences and insights from the wider business community.

Given the systemic scale of many of these human rights issues we recognise this is a key area where we need to increase our collaboration and so were pleased many of our partners could be in the room and speaking at this event.

We heard from multinational corporations, such as BT, who we work with on supporting the national slavery hotline and Coca-Cola, who we collaborate with on responsible recruitment through the consumer goods forum.

We were also proud to host Mr HKL Magu, Chairman of the Apparel Export Promotion Council, the official body of apparel exporters in India, who spoke of the local challenges and emphasised that respect for human rights is enshrined in the constitution and it is in the interests of business to respect human rights and tackle forced labour given the prioritisation and challenges to business from the Indian government.

Finally, Jo Burden Head of Political and Bilateral affairs at the British High Commission in India welcomed the event and spoke of the partnership with M&S and others to facilitate gender equality by creating an environment for women to grow their careers in the garment sector.

We were also able to launch our international Forced Labour toolkit to support international suppliers and franchise partners to show leadership in tackling forced labour in their business practices, operations and supply chains.

We hold a steadfast commitment to champion the eradication of modern slavery and by bringing together our suppliers in India we were able to raise awareness and understanding of good practice. Our belief is that greater collaboration and education will bolster the fight against this heinous crime.