A Defining Decade: how did the 2010s shape how we work now?

The 2020 world is very different to the one we transitioned into at the start of 2010. In this blog post, we identify key events and topics of the past decade that shape the way we approach things today.

Rana Plaza

On 24th of April 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. Over 1,100 people were killed and around 2,500 injured. The disaster shook the fashion community and brought the world’s attention to the safety of garment and factory workers.

Rana Plaza ignited action amongst brands, activists and governments. The incident connected building integrity and health and safety with worker voice and ability to raise concerns. It will continue to influence discourse around factory conditions for years to come.

Commitments to tackle modern day slavery

A 2016 ILO report estimated there are 40.3 million people in modern day slavery, with 24.9 million in forced labour. It is widely acknowledged that the risk of modern day slavery is present in most global supply chains.

The past decade saw several legislative efforts to ask large retailers and manufacturers to provide statements on their efforts to tackle modern day slavery in their supply chains. In 2010, California enacted the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chain Act. In 2015, the UK established the Modern Slavery Act (with additional measures in 2016), and in 2018 Australia introduced the Modern Slavery Bill. At the G20 Summit in 2017, leaders committed to “taking immediate and effective measures to eliminate child labour by 2025… and all forms of modern slavery”.

Although the acts are criticised for not going far enough, they put greater responsibility on companies to establish mechanisms to investigate and tackle modern slavery in their supply chains.

Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality

Action on women’s empowerment and gender equality has built momentum in recent years. Sexual harassment and equal pay for equal work are two of the key issues brought to the fore. There is also more discussion about “intersectionality”; how multiple characteristics (e.g. gender and religion) intersect and increase vulnerability to abuses.

In 2011, UN Women published the Women’s Empowerment Principles to advise businesses on how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace. The ILO ratified the Convention on Violence and Harassment in 2019.

Companies are also being assessed and benchmarked on their gender equality strategies. BSR and the UN have released guidance to help companies identify issues and monitor objectives.


More than 5,000 refugees and migrants lost their lives during migration in 2015. Whether fleeing from conflict, climate disaster or political oppression, or moving for economic reasons, when you’ve reached your destination, you need to find work to live.

Migration brings a multitude of benefits for origin and destination countries, and for people and their families. However, the lack of protection for migrant workers and the circumstances through which they find work make them vulnerable to human rights violations. Responsible recruitment and employment starts before someone’s first day at work, and includes examining the systems in place to protect workers throughout their (pre-)employment journey.

Climate and environment

Environmental issues gained prominence in political, commercial and societal agendas. Industrial oil palm, cattle ranching, and soya bean production were called out for links with deforestation and biodiversity destruction, particularly in tropical forest regions of the Amazon Basin and Southeast Asia.

The decade saw deadly extreme weather events, such as the fires in California, 2018, and Boreno, 2015, and floods in Banglasdesh, 2017. The ecological cost of packaging and plastics was highlighted in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. Consumers now want to dispose of the disposables and unpack the packaged.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agreed in 2018 that allowing global temperatures to rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would be devastating for the planet. The UN Global Compact is asking companies to commit to science-based targets and a “1.5°C-compliant business model”. Last year, Greta Thunberg took to the stage at the UN Climate Summit, shaming world leaders for failing to act.

Gig economy and flexible employment

A worker in the gig economy benefits from the ability to choose hours. Companies benefit from the classification of a worker as an independent contractor and have fewer labour costs when there is no work. However, companies have been prosecuted for classifying their staff as “independent contractors” when the relationship was more akin to one with a formal employee.

For independent contractors, there is no protection against unfair dismissal, no sick or holiday pay and, in the UK at least, no right to the national minimum wage. The gig economy (and zero-hours contracts) came under fire for not providing stable income, basic rights and social protection.

From compliance to “beyond compliance”

Campaigners and research bodies have highlighted the need for the compliance industry to move beyond a reliance on social audits to a multifaceted “human rights due diligence”. This means more proactive approaches to risk mitigation and direct engagement with workers and their representatives. Human Rights Impact Assessments and “deep-dive” methodologies have emerged to build better understanding of issues and root causes.

Collaboration around global goals.

In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The principles set clear mandate of the responsibility of states to protect and businesses to respect human rights.

In 2016, 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With acknowledgement that progress had been uneven across geographies, the transition signalled a greater focus on vulnerable people. The final goal, “Partnerships for the Goal”, emphasises the need for collaboration in order to achieve the global ambitions.

Both the UNGPs and SDGs provide frameworks through which businesses can collaborate, align and set strategies and targets. Companies can join the United Nations Global Compact Network, which drives business awareness and action around the SDGs.

Where are we now?

Looking back on the last decade makes sense of how we have started this new one. These topics define our approaches and focus areas today.

How we can better capture information around vulnerable workers, namely women, young people, migrant workers and those in insecure employment contracts, feeds into development of our tool suite. This year, Sedex has released a new Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) and will shortly be releasing a new risk tool, called Radar. The new SAQ asks more questions around recruitment and payment of fees, and for more information around vulnerable workers. It is also adapted for use by labour providers. Radar provides more granular information on types of risk, factors feeding into risk scores, and on vulnerable workers in supply chains. We are exploring ‘Worker Voice’ technologies and hope to start a pilot this year.

The complex and ever-changing global geopolitical climate shapes the nature of sourcing and production systems. It is ever more important for businesses to map and understand their supply chains and evaluate how their activities influence those within them.

Rosie joined Sedex in 2019 and works in the Responsible Sourcing team.

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