Running is a sport or hobby taken up by millions, from the casual citizen trying to keep fit to the Mo Farahs and the Eliud Kipchoges. Being so widespread, the primary equipment needed to participate in the practice, the running shoe, is widely manufactured around the globe. However, the humble running shoe often doesn’t have a pleasant history, with manufacturing supply chains being prevalent with modern slavery in its various forms.

The predominant world footwear manufacturers are in China, Vietnam, Turkey, India and Bangladesh, none of whom comply with the Trafficking in Persons Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. China and Vietnam especially having ratings of Tier 3 and Tier 2 watch list respectively, This meaning that China ‘neither satisfy the minimum standards nor demonstrate a significant effort to come into compliance’ (Tier 3) and Vietnam ‘do not fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance’ (Tier 2) however they are ‘requiring special scrutiny’ to see that the efforts they are taking are in fact significant, in order that they do not drop back to Tier 3 (hence the watch list element of their rating).

Each of these countries contain some of the 16 million global supply chain slaves within their manufacturing processes, but due to the decentralisation and outsourcing of the global supply chain many of the companies selling the final running shoe product are not aware of this exploitation. They don’t realise that the products they are selling may have been tainted with modern slavery.

The problem doesn’t even stop there. Even if the manufacturers of the footwear are well audited, surveyed, and credited, (in so ensuring that there is not exploitation in their factories), there is still risk that the shoes may have slavery stitched into their story. One step further back in the product process, the extraction and production of raw materials, lies further risk.

The base (outsole) of any good running shoe is usually made of rubber, a naturally occurring resource produced mainly in Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar (Tier 2, 2WL, and 2 respectively). Rubber is listed on the Bureau of International Labour Affairs (ILAB)’s list of goods which it has reason to believe are produced by child or forced labour. The extraction of the latex sap from trees, and then the further stabilisation and vulcanisation processes, require extensive labour, labour which is often not well regulated or monitored.

Likewise, the thread and cloth that makes up the laces and some of the fabric upper of running shoes, are produced in China (Tier 3) and India (Tier 2) primarily. These also being on the ILAB ‘goods produced by child or forced labour’ list.

We are all connected, it is not always clear but by the products we buy and the work we do we interact with items and processes that have passed though many hands across several countries. Sometimes, far too often, those hands will have been forced or coerced – should it not be our responsibility to make sure that is not the case? Society needs to make sure our businesses and supply chains are protected from the hidden clutches of mistreatment and oppression.

These are very murky waters; it would be untruthful to say that any good produced in a Tier 3 or 2WL country definitely has an element slavery within its manufacturing process, not every running shoe is a product of exploitation. However, risk does exist in this industry. The utmost vigilance must be taken to ensure that we are not contributing to trafficking through the products we make and buy every day.

An example of one exercise that could go a long way to securing your supply chains against slavery can be seen in the example set by VF Corp, the parent company of several clothing and footwear brands such as Timberland, Vans, North Face, etc. VF Corp initiated the Traceability Program in 2017, a scheme in which they identify the upstream supply chain of their products, ultimately producing a ‘traceability map’ which shows the impacts of their products right back to the raw material level of production in the product’s life cycle. Something as simple as gathering and releasing this information can begin to ensure that problems hidden in the shadows are exposed and addressed, transparency is so important to seeing change as it is only in knowing an issue is there that it can be dealt with.

It is not easy to know how to go about trying to tackle the incredibly widespread and hidden problem of modern slavery, nor is it easy even to know where to start. Here, however, you are not alone for this is where The Mekong Club and the Matera Alliance come in, both are among the many non-for-profits who are aiding the private sector in addressing this issue. This is the place where you may find the voices of the experts and join them in caring for the people we are all connected to. Let them guide you in working towards a slave free world.

To learn more about the impacts on supply chains and to reduce the vulnerability of forced labor in the migrant recruitment process, click to register for our webinar on May 18th, 11:00 GMT+8.

Contributed by: Zac Spiers