Interview with conference spotlight speaker Phil Marshall

We caught up with Phil Marshall, Director of the Mekong Club, to discuss what he sees as the challenges, trends and tech impacting responsible sourcing.


What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received regarding putting responsible sourcing at the core of your business?

To recognise that the legal environment is changing all the time and that companies doing the bare minimum – rather than taking a long-term view – are going to constantly be playing catch-up at best, and find themselves facing legal action at worst.


What do you think are the most important recent trends in social sustainability?

I think the increase and tightening up of legislation, particularly an increase in direct threats to exploitative business practice. Notably US action against specific products made from forced labour, broader action on eliminating trade preferences, and the EU Yellow Card to Thailand on seafood which for the first time looked at labour, not just environmental/stock management issues.  The issue of goods being produced by criminal labour practice has up until recently been seen more as one of ethics than law. I think it is starting to become clear that this needs to change.


What industry challenges do you think are most pressing in responsible sourcing?

Market realities. The current situation has not come about in a vacuum but against a background where the supply of potential low-skilled migrant workers has generally far outstripped demand. Every action taken to improve the lives of migrants carries the risk of counter action by exploitative agents. We need to be realistic about this, anticipate it, measure for it, and address it.


What will you be focusing on in the coming year?

At the request of members, The Mekong Club’s focus this year is on recruitment. An area of interest for both The Mekong Club and the Research and Communications Group (RCG) is looking at gains that can be made without necessarily reducing long-term profitability. At present the cost of recruitment is generally much higher than it needs to be for a range of reasons including poor policy and process, cumbersome compliance regimes, and limited information available to many migrants. The conversation as to who pays recruitment fees would be a lot easier if the fees were not so artificially high. For me, there needs to be more emphasis on getting the fees down.


Do you see any technology that is helping/will really help responsible sourcing progress?

I think there are way too many apps being developed that do more or less the same thing, or haven’t been properly thought through. For me, the most promising technology relates to 1. allowing migrant workers to be better informed and less at the mercy of individual recruiters, 2. apps that help bridge privacy and language issues such as that being piloted by the Mekong Club to support social auditors, and 3. increasing transparency in the recruitment process, which for all the hype about blockchain might be an area that it can really help.


Phil Marshall is Director of The Mekong Club, and the Private Sector Engagement Lead for the Research and Communications Group.

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