Financial Times article on Walk Free launch in Myanmar

Financial Times.

Branson launches campaign to end slavery.

16 Dec 2012. 

By Gwen Robinson in Bangkok.

A group of corporate executives including the UK’s Sir Richard Branson and Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest have launched a campaign to urge top global companies, from mining to manufacturing, as well as governments to sign up to a voluntary regime aimed at eradicating use of forced labour.

To mark the launch of the “Walk Free” campaign in Yangon on Sunday, Myanmar became the first government to sign the campaign pledge to end slavery and forced labour and bring perpetrators to justice. The pledge was announced at the first big pop concert to be held in the country for decades – the latest sign of the country’s rapid reform process.

At the politically symbolic site outside Yangon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda, where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first public speech in 1988, Grammy-award winning singer Jason Mraz urged an end to slavery and human trafficking before more than 50,000 cheering people.

Sir Richard, who chairs the Virgin Group, and Mr Forrest, chairman of Australia-based Fortescue Metals, the world’s fourth biggest iron ore producer, jointly launched the campaign, which is urging 25 top companies, including Apple, GE, Microsoft, Chevron, IBM and Walmart, to pledge by March 31 to “end modern slavery” by identifying, eradicating and preventing forced labour in their operations and supply chains. Sir Richard spoke by video to the crowd.

Already, more than 260 companies – nearly 230 of them suppliers to Fortescue – have signed the pledge, led by Fortescue, the Virgin Group and Inditex, parent company of clothing maker Zara. “We hope before too long there will be thousands,” said Mr Forrest, who chairs the campaign.

“Business has always been a key driver of social change,” said Nick Grono, Walk Free’s chief executive. “If corporate giants – 25 of the world’s top businesses with a net worth of $5tn – prioritise the abolition of modern slavery as their next major innovation, we could quickly deal a major blow to the slavery industry.”

Alongside securing corporate pledges, the campaign will publish a global “slavery index” next August on conditions in 160 countries. It is also seeking contributions from companies, governments and charities for a global fund to implement anti-slavery strategies, said Mr Forrest. The mining tycoon has so far given $260m to the campaign and associated charities.

“The gap in enforcement to end slavery will take billions of dollars, we hope governments, companies and philanthropists will give generously because ending slavery is not only good business but absolutely essential,” said Mr Forrest.

Mr Forrest acknowledged the campaign adds to a growing plethora of corporate social responsibility initiatives aimed at big companies. The difference between Walk Free and comparable global campaigns such as the UN Global Compact and Ruggie Principles, he noted, is that “this is business-led and it is a single-issue campaign – a 21st century solution to a 21st century crisis”.

“B2B has a massive impact, we can go to the leaders of top companies and speak to them directly; so far, many have been astonished to find slavery exists – sometimes in their own supply chains.”

The campaign’s organisers and MTV Exit, which arranged the Mraz concert, hope the concertwill raise awareness of the campaign. Mr Mraz found fame with the 2008 release of the single I’m Yours and won two Grammys in 2010 for the hits Make it Mine and Lucky.

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