IDSN presented on the panel of the event “Modern Slavery: Stakeholder dialogue on Caste in Global Supply Chains” organised by Ethical Trade Norway on 14 December,  to discuss ways to tackle caste discrimination in global supply chains and the need for global companies to act on this.

Kicking off the event the Executive Director of Ethical Trade Norway, Heidi Furustøl, explained how caste is the biggest single enabler of modern slavery in South Asia and that addressing caste discrimination links directly to the UN Global Goals and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

IDSN Executive Director, Meena Varma, said that caste related human and labour rights abuses occur widely in supply chains in South Asia including in agriculture, garments, leather, stone and minerals, carpets, brick kilns and more and explained how Dalit workers are not only the most vulnerable to human rights abuses but also the most invisible workers.

“We need a European wide policy on caste, business and human rights in supply chains, and this should be part of mandatory due diligence frameworks,” Ms. Varma said. “We must go to the very end of supply chains – because this is where modern slavery happens.”

There is very little awareness of rights and remedies among Dalit workers and even where there is awareness, impunity and serious obstacles to obtaining justice due to deeply ingrained caste discrimination are rife, she explained, as is employment discrimination. She stressed the need to involve Dalits in everything from planning, policy-making to implementation, when we do stakeholder engagement.

This was echoed by Stine Foss who launched a new practical Roadmap for stakeholder engagement, just released by Ethical Trade Norway in collaboration with NORAD.

“It is key to talk to the people affected and engage stakeholders in the right way – self-assessment is not enough,” Ms. Foss said.

Representing the corporate perspective, Vegard Neverlien of Norwegian garment company, Varner, offered important insight to how to work through stakeholder engagement in South Asia to improve the situation.

“Human rights risks in India include caste and gender and it is complex to navigate and important to verify information received and actually investigate the situation and engage with workers. We opened an office in India to do this,” Mr. Neverlien said. “It is important to collaborate across a wider group of stakeholders and with other companies to address abuses, including those related to caste discrimination such as the Sumangali Scheme in the cotton spinning mills where Dalit girls work in bonded labour.”

He stressed the need to address the suppliers of suppliers and work deeper with the communities to address issues beyond the factory floor in tier 3 and beyond of supply chains.

Closing the event, Ms. Furustøl recommended that companies use the ETI-UK/IDSN guidance publication Caste in Global Supply Chains and the new Ethical Trade Norway Roadmap for stakeholder engagement to start working on this issue immediately.