02 Aug 2018

Leading the way: How Sri Lankan businesses are at the forefront of the fight against slavery

With modern slavery now affecting over 40 million people, the people and businesses of Sri Lanka are fighting harder than ever to see change made.

2 minute read
asantha-abeysooriya-beNiTTa8Pp8-unsplash
Photo Credit: Asantha Abeysooriya via Unsplash.

Sri Lanka itself is estimated to have some 44,000 people in slavery, and around 2 million citizens abroad being compelled into forced labour – the need for immediate action has never been greater.

Tea giant Dilmah have committed themselves to sustainability and understand that they have a responsibility (and an opportunity) to foster an environment of social responsibility and resilience.

Chairman and founder of Dilmah, Merrill Fernando, noted the need for ethical practices, saying “we understand that for Dilmah to succeed in creating long term value, sustainable development should be a strategic imperative.”

MAS Group’s ‘Lives Made Better’ program also seeks to empower their employees to thrive with dignity and ‘maximise the wellbeing, health and consciousness’ of their stakeholders.

This sentiment is shared by many other Sri Lankan businesses with Dialog, Capital Maharaja and the John Keels Group all committing themselves to sustainable practices and to overcoming the difficulties of forced labour.

Capital Maharaja group director Chevaan Daniel attended the inaugural Bali Process Government and Business Forum in Perth and round table meeting with Mr Andrew Forrest AO in New York to discuss the plight being faced by Sri Lankan migrant workers.

Mr Daniel has since championed the cause of the Bali Process by bringing the issue to the attention of the Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena and the local media.

In his address to the forum last year, Mr Daniel called on everyone to pick up the fight against slavery and to see change enacted both in legislation and in business practice.

He said “I am not here for the 40 million modern day slaves, that’s just a number. I am here to fight for one Sri Lankan. And if we can free that one Sri Lankan, the rest will be free as well.”

It is not only the private sector making efforts to ensure sustainability with president Maithripala Sirisena reaffirming the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting earlier this year.

In his address he said, “I call upon everyone present here to join hands with the Commonwealth countries as well as other countries to bring prosperity with best business practices that will promote social responsibility and ensure social inclusiveness.”

Perhaps the greatest symbol for the Sri Lankan fight against slavery is the flourishing ‘Slave Island.’ The Colombo suburb once used to sequester African slaves brought in by the Dutch is today a multicultural hub of art, religion and cuisine. This transformation is a testament to the Sri Lankan spirit of inclusivity and tolerance that businesses such as Dilmah and Capital Maharaja are trying to foster.

With this year’s Global Slavery Index indicating that the amount of people in some form of slavery is increasing, the need for other businesses and governments to take on similar reform measures to that of Sri Lanka is becoming an imperative.

Written by Daniel Els, University of Notre Dame Australia Student.