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Jun 5, 2020

In Episode 4 of Series 5 of the Rights Track, Todd is talking with Elaine Michel-Hill and  Arianne Griffith. Elaine is the business and human rights lead at Marshalls plc, a leading hard landscape company serving both the commercial and domestic construction markets with multiple operating sites in the UK and supply chains across the globe. Arianne leads the Rights Lab Modern Slavery Evidence Unit’s (MSEU) deployment of research for business application. Her work also focuses on effective law and policy to tackle modern slavery in supply chains and the application of business and human rights frameworks to the anti-slavery agenda. Together with Todd they discuss the connections between the UN Sustainable Goals SDG 8.7 on tackling modern slavery and SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production patterns.


00.00 – 02.17

Elaine outlines the work of Marshalls plc, a major supplier of construction products including natural stone. She explains that most of the natural stone is sourced outside of the UK in over 30 countries including Brazil, China, India and Vietnam and notes that it is in these operations and its supply chains, where there is the greatest risk of human rights abuses.


02.17 – 07.15

Elaine describes how, over a number of years, she has closely observed the quarrying process at first hand. Most stone originates from quarries they operate and the company has a dialogue with local operators to understand local labour contexts. They also source stone on the open market where that dialogue is less possible. In the quarries operated by Marshalls, for example in India, all stone extraction is mechanised and over the last 15 years the labour requirement has noticeably reduced. However, she is aware that hand labour is still extensively used in other quarries. As a result of work with local suppliers the use of child labour is less obvious. However, she suspects it still exists, out of sight, and has strong connections to bonded labour and forced labour.


07.15 – 11.40

Arianne reviews a range of information and guidance for both states and companies and points to 2011 as a significant turning point in relation to corporate business and supply chains with the unanimous adoption by the Human Rights Council of the Guiding Principles on business and human rights. They gave rise to a number of instruments and resources and outline:

  • the duty of states to protect human rights
  • the duty of companies to respect human rights
  • the joint duty of both to find remedies to abuses of human rights

This has led to two significant advances:

  • It gave companies a framework on which to build policy
  • Companies began to discuss the issues with one another and state actors

In terms of delivering on the guidelines, corporate responsibility exists irrespective of the state’s capacity to deliver protection of human rights. Although the guidelines are not binding, in Arianne’s view companies are increasingly accepting responsibility to meet them.

She points out that the OECD guidelines for multi-national enterprises provide a slightly different framework. In Arianne’s view, however, there is a real need for legislation at the national level.

11.40 – 15.19

Elaine’s experience is that even without legislation companies can develop a responsible approach to human rights. Her own company, she points out were early signatories to the United Nations Global Compact. Its value was:

  • The framework for action it provided
  • It was an expression of public commitment to the spirit of the Compact 

The existing “philanthropic” culture within the company made the process of embedding the ideas and developing policies relatively straightforward. This also has benefits for maintaining a good reputation with customers; a process Elaine describes as commercialising an approach to sustainability. This protects the long-term viability of the company, and is essential if human rights are to be supported.

15.19 – 19.26

The UK Modern Slavery Act  brought a real focus to the company’s approach to human rights. Its aim is to engage with the spirit of the law, not just compliance.

It also reports on collaborative projects such as the IOM programme in Vietnam.

19.26 – 21.36

All agree, transparency, or lack of it, is a key issue. Arianne’s view is that there is a limited level of engagement beyond a narrow compliance with the law. Whilst the Modern Slavery Act has brought about significant change, and served to create a more level playing field across the corporate world, companies need to do much more.

21.36 – end

A discussion around the impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic. Elaine’s view is that given the extreme pressures on companies, vulnerable workers have become more vulnerable and considerations of human rights have been pushed to one side. It shows a need to:

  • Check that modern slavery statements reflect the changed situation
  • Build more resilience in the system
  • Re-double due diligence. 

It also points to the need for greater transparency particularly where the corporate sector and the informal sector (criminal activity, corruption, trafficking) merge, but Elaine questions whether there are limits to how much transparency can be achieved.